State OKs schools' private meetings Review board upholds closed talks in Balto. Co. about Berger dismissal


Baltimore County's school board was within its rights to meet secretly to evaluate former Superintendent Stuart Berger and negotiate a $300,000 buyout of his contract, according to a state review board.

Responding to a complaint about the board's handling of Dr. Berger's August dismissal, the Open Meetings Compliance Board justified the school board's actions in spring and summer. Its ruling appears to clear the way for the school board to find and hire a new superintendent amid similar secrecy.

The compliance board ruled last week that the "open meetings act was not violated with respect to the matters" in the complaint, filed in July by Patuxent Publishing Co. in Towson.

Those matters include a series of informal meetings by school board members to discuss Dr. Berger's annual evaluation, as well as the decisions to pay him to leave the position 11 months early and to name deputy superintendent Anthony G. Marchione as acting head of the 102,000-student system.

Maryland's open meetings law specifies that "a public body shall give reasonable advance notice" for open and closed sessions, but includes an exception for "executive functions," said Jack Schwartz of the state attorney general's office.

'Troublesome' provision

The compliance board defended some of the informal meetings under this "executive functions" clause, a difficult-to-define provision that the compliance board acknowledges is "troublesome." It did, however, say that evaluating a superintendent's performance is one of those functions.

The compliance board excused other meetings because a quorum of the school board was not present, and the law does not apply to such gatherings.

Further, the ruling said that when the board "amended" Dr. Berger's contract, removing him as superintendent but keeping him under contract as a "consultant," it did so properly at an announced closed session July 11. According to the four-page ruling, board minutes for that closed session -- before a regular public meeting -- "disclose an amendment to the superintendent's contract which was approved by unanimous vote."

Promise of secrecy

The "tentative minutes" of that closed session, distributed Aug. 8, do not mention amending Dr. Berger's contract, however.

School board President Calvin D. Disney said the matter was left out because the board did not want it disclosed until after Dr. Berger was removed as superintendent.

Although Dr. Berger's dismissal was agreed upon in July and his job offered to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, he and several board members repeatedly denied that such negotiations were taking place.

Secrecy was, in fact, a stipulation of the board's agreement with Dr. Berger.

Mr. Disney has repeatedly refused to discuss the board's reasoning for giving Dr. Berger a buyout package that included the remainder of his $121,000 salary, cash payments of $150,000, use of a county car until July and other fringe benefits.

He said last week that the board has not discussed how it will go about hiring a replacement for Dr. Berger. But now that school board procedures have been upheld, it seems likely the 12-member appointed body will swing into action.

School system spokesman Donald I. Mohler said, "Now that the board has received a favorable response from the compliance board you can expect to see the board deciding how to go forward with the search" for a superintendent.

Dr. Marchione's interim term runs through June 30.

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