Monitoring the Baltimore County schools' $580 million budget is good business, not an attempt to micro-manage the schools, said County Executive-elect C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.
That's why Mr. Ruppersberger has appointed Robin L. Churchill, an accountant in the county auditor's office, to his staff specifically to be a $60,000-a-year "watchdog" over the school budget, which accounts for about half of all the money the county spends annually.
"What business or corporation doesn't want accountability of funds?" said Mr. Ruppersberger. "We need to make sure that we're getting the resources we're paying for. The people want to know where their money is going."
School system officials and board members are walking gingerly around Mr. Ruppersberger's appointment of the fiscal monitor.
"I don't look at it as a threat," said Superintendent Stuart Berger. "I don't see any positive to interpreting it that way.
"He certainly is interested in and concerned about education . . . and we value his input. Just as we don't want him to second-guess our operation, it would be extremely presumptuous of me to second-guess how he runs his.
"He and I are going to be able to work together."
The controversial superintendent became a campaign issue when Mr. Ruppersberger used Dr. Berger's picture in a television advertisement and said he had stood up to the school system and ultimately swayed the board to establish a citizen task force when problems erupted in the spring of 1993.
Mr. Ruppersberger did not explain how Ms. Churchill would work or whether she would look specifically at certain areas of the budget.
The incoming executive, who served on the County Council for nine years, said he and his colleagues had some "difficulty getting the information we needed" during budget discussions, and that was one reason for the appointment. "We need to have someone who reports directly to me who would be there to
monitor the monies," he said.
School officials have maintained that they provided whatever information the council requested, but the system's outdated recordkeeping system prohibited them from promptly meeting the requests.
Mr. Ruppersberger, meanwhile, said voters told him they did not mind spending money on education but wanted to know how it was spent and preferred it be spent in classrooms.
He questioned whether money and other resources are being taken away from neighborhood schools to establish the county's new system of magnet programs, and said controlling class size is essential.
Ms. Churchill was unavailable for comment on her new position. Mr. Ruppersberger said she is a certified public accountant and has experience with performance audits.
Dr. Berger said she could be a benefit to the school system by having close contact with Mr. Ruppersberger. "Hopefully, she'll be encouraging him to give us more money," he said. "I really do believe that we can make an ally out of him."
School board President Paul Cunningham took umbrage at the word "watchdog" to describe the staff position. "Watchdog is a negative term, and it has the potential to start off the school board and the county executive on the wrong foot," he said. "That sort of implies that the school board is doing something wrong."
That's not the case, said Mr. Ruppersberger.
"We want to work very closely with the superintendent and the board," he said. "I made education one of my priorities. I also have a personal vested interest." He said he has a child attending county schools and that his wife is a county teacher. "I want the best education system in the country," he said.