The Harford County school board postponed a scheduled meeting last Monday on revising the way it handles the construction and renovation of schools, saying that an open meeting might jeopardize potential litigation against two contractors.
The seven-member board voted 4 to 3 to close the meeting while it considered potential staffing changes to its construction department and increasing the amount of time it gives contractors to build schools.
The board voted unanimously to postpone the meeting after a Baltimore Sun reporter protested the closing, advising members that their action violated Maryland's open meetings law.
The school system said on Friday that it would hold the meeting on changing its construction practices on Oct. 18, according to school spokesman Donald R. Morrison. He said parts of that meeting, which concern potential litigation, could be closed.
School Superintendent Ray R. Keech recommended that the board close last Monday night's meeting on the advice of Patrick Spicer, the board's attorney.
Mr. Keech said discussing future changes in construction policies could affect potential litigation against two general contractors, Triangle General Contractors Inc., the builder of Fallston Middle School, and Peter J. Scarpulla Contractors Inc., builder of the Church Creek Elementary School in Belcamp.
"There are megabucks at stake here if we go to court," Mr. Keech said as he warned members about saying anything that could be used against the county in a court case.
The Monday night meeting had been advertised as an open meeting since the date was set more than two weeks ago. The school system had mailed an agenda about a week ago.
Keith Williams, a school board member who voted against closing the meeting, said he had not been notified the meeting would be closed until after he had arrived at school board headquarters in Bel Air.
"We are here tonight to discuss how we should change our construction policies in the future and that should be open to the public," Mr. Williams said.
But Ronald Eaton, another board member, disagreed. "We don't want to jeopardize taxpayers dollars by saying the wrong thing," said Mr. Eaton, who voted to close the meeting.
County Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrott, R-District B, who attended the meeting said she had not been told the meeting would be closed until late Monday afternoon.
"The county's tax dollars are valuable and the public has a right to know how the school system plans to spend them," she told the school board.
Richard W. Daub Jr., president of the PTA at Havre de Grace Elementary, said he came to the meeting to find out the status of the proposed renovation of the nearly 50-year-old school. Mr. Daub said he was angry that he had driven from Havre de Grace only to find out that the meeting was closed.
"I came here to tonight to get some answers and instead there is just utter confusion," he said.
Mr. Daub said parents at the school are very frustrated. "The rules keep changing. How is the public suppose to know what is going on? How can we protest a decision?" he said.
The school system blames Hanover-based Triangle for construction delays that caused Fallston Middle School to fail a state fire marshal's inspection Aug. 24. Students started school Sept. 13, two weeks later than the rest of the county's 35,000 students.
Triangle, through its attorney, William M. Huddles, has denied responsibility for construction delays that pushed backed the scheduled opening of the school on Carrs Mill Road and Route 152.
Construction at Church Creek Elementary School in Belcamp stopped Sept. 10.
The school system has declined to comment on the status of the school because of potential litigation, according to Mr. Morrison, the school spokesman.
Gerard M. Amedoro, corporate secretary for Baltimore-based Scarpulla Contractors, said the site "has been secured for inventory as so ordered by our bonding company" the St. Paul Seaboard Co. of New Jersey.
Mr. Amedoro said Scarpulla stopped work at the school, at Church Creek Road and Riverside Parkway, because the company was experiencing financial difficulties.
These difficulties, he said, included the potential assessment of a $1,500 per diem penalty for every day Church Creek Elementary opens late. The Sun reported erroneously on Sept. 19 that the company had filed for bankruptcy.