The Howard County Council is open to authorizing possible legal action against the school system to enforce its auditors' ongoing financial audit of the school system, according to a unanimous vote the council took Oct. 5.
In May, the council approved a $1.8 billion county spending plan for the next fiscal year. The approved budget includes $808 million for schools — $50 million less than what the school board requested. The approved budget was the highest amount approved in years.
The audit is the latest point of contention between the council and the school system's leadership following a tense budget season this year that pushed the council to seek the audit and form an advisory committee to examine the school spending.
Schools budget director Beverly Davis fired back against the move, calling it "political posturing" to push the election agenda of Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who was prompted to propose the measure after many unmet requests for information in August and early September. Ball has not announced any plans to run for office.
Davis said those requests came at one of the busiest times in the school year as the system closed its books for a state audit, was juggling unfilled staff vacancies and went live with a new financial system.
"It's not about any school system finances. Nor is it about problems with the audit," Davis said.As of Thursday morning, the school system had met all of the county's requests for information and space, Davis said.
"We told them right away … it's going to be mid-September. That was very honest and upfront," she said. "They have chosen to present public ignorance of that fact."
Still, the school system's compliance can "vary day by day and request by request," said Ball.
"Passage of this legislation helps encourage a transparent environment throughout the duration of the audit," Ball said, adding that public testimony and the council members' unanimous support warrants its need.
The Oct. 5 vote opens up the possibility for swift legal action, should it become necessary.
"We have an opportunity to ensure the audit is performed and that everyone fully understands the financial implications of the audit," Ball said.
The county's auditor, Craig Glendenning, said the school system has provided documentation detailing support for legal fees — but the documents were heavily redacted.
Council members lamented that taking legal action could be neccesary, and pointed to the school system's resistance to requests for information.
"We were not kidding about the audit in the first place," said Councilman Jon Weinstein. "We need to make sure that something that is lawfully ordered is lawfully carried out."
Davis said the county auditor's financial audit duplicates the work of existing audits, and that the spat between the council and the school system reveals the county's inexperience in conducting financial audits.
Glendenning said his auditing team is highly qualified to complete the financial audit and his office's work does not duplicate other audits.
"We will not be repeating any work that they have performed," he said.
Glendenning previously worked for 12 years in Anne Arundel County's Auditor's Office, a position that included a review of the county's comprehensive annual financial report, a major report that details an entity's financial condition
The school system requested resumes and public accounting licenses of the county's auditors, a request that schools spokesman John White said is routine when the school system is audited by external auditors.