It is time for the Carroll County commissioners and the Board of Education to end their political skirmish over a proposed performance audit of the school system. The school board has backed itself into a bad position. Its strategy now should be to ensure that this audit doesn't become a device to undermine a well-functioning school system.
Some history: In 1989, the school board reluctantly agreed to this performance audit. The argument for it was simple: Because education accounts for about 54 percent of the county's $130 million budget, an accounting of the effectiveness of school operations seemed prudent. Even though the county has achieved exceptional academic results while spending less than the state's per pupil average, the possibility exists for finding ways to tighten spending.
Four years since that agreement, however, the audit has yet to begin. Instead, the commissioners and the board have been engaged in a non-productive turf battle over the scope of the review. The commissioners are so fed up with the situation, they have asked the county's legislative delegation to get a bill passed to grant them authority them to unilaterally impose the performance audit. Last year, a similar bill was killed in Annapolis; this year's request is probably doomed to the same fate.
The school board is worried that the commissioners will use the audit to make education policy. It's a weak argument because the commissioners already exercise a degree of influence on education matters simply by the fact that they raise the revenues and determine the budget.
By fighting the performance review, the school board has unintentionally upped the ante. Should the audit be completed by May, as called for in a recent timetable, any findings of wasteful school spending are likely to become fodder for next year's political campaigns. The incumbents will take credit for exposing waste, and the challengers probably will say it is but the tip of the iceberg. Either way, an unnecessary shadow will be cast on a well-performing school system.
Given the school system's lean budget and continued excellence in student achievement, a performance audit seems unlikely to uncover much flab. The board should allow the audit and focus instead on devising effective strategies to answer the expected demagogy on school spending.