Word that a Carroll County grand jury is conducting an inquiry into the Board of Education's management of several school construction projects caught many county public officials and residents by surprise yesterday and left all wondering what the consequence of the probe may be.
"It's not something we are jumping up and down about," said County Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "I stand completely out of it. I've got to be a county commissioner. This is a school board issue. It's their problem to deal with."
The 23-member jury has questioned at least one county official, Steven D. Powell, the county's director of management and budget. Powell said he was subpoenaed twice during the summer regarding the Board of Education. Powell has declined to comment on his testimony.
"Steve told us he testified. That's the limit of what I know," Dell said.
A source close to the investigation said the grand jury is looking into the Board of Education's handling of construction projects, including Cranberry Station Elementary School, which opened last month more than $1 million over budget, and Francis Scott Key High School, where school officials built a sewage treatment plant without proper state permits.
Both projects have led to costly lawsuits. The largest suit has been filed by James W. Ancel, the original contractor of Cranberry Elementary, who claims top school officials defamed him. He is seeking $45 million in damages.
"I am glad someone is finally investigating what happened at Cranberry," Ancel said yesterday.
Asked if the grand jury has subpoenaed him to testify or hand over documents, Ancel replied, "No comment."
School officials continued to downplay news of the inquiry.
"These issues have been addressed before. Everything has been made public. What's new?" asked Gary W. Bauer, school board president.
State Sen. Larry E. Haines, chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said he didn't know about the grand jury inquiry.
"That's news to me," Haines said.
Although he was aware of troubles with school construction projects, he said he had heard no complaints or concerns from the public.
"If the grand jury is doing an investigation, I'm sure they will decide whether or not there's been gross mismanagement or mismanagement on the part of Board of Education," he said.
Del. Joseph M. Getty of Manchester was quick to defend board members, saying it is unlikely they are the target of any criminal probe.
"I know each board member personally. I don't think any of the five board members knowingly engaged in any criminal activity that would be the subject of a grand jury investigation," Getty said.
"I don't think any of the five members of the board were reckless in behavior that would rise to that level. However, is it a question of what lower administrators might have done? I don't know," he said.
"A grand jury has broad latitude," he continued. "Historically, they have looked into things of a civic interest. In the 1800s, a grand jury would make reports on conditions at the almshouse or the condition of the courthouse."
Getty said the grand jury might be looking into whether school officials shared enough information with board members. But Getty, an attorney, cautioned that the scope of the investigation might never be made public.
"We may never know anything about it. The grand jury could decide there is nothing there," Getty said.
Cindy Cummings, president of the Carroll County Education Association, the teachers union, also defended school board members.
"I don't think they willfully were negligent or had criminal intentions. Whatever happened was not deliberate," she said, adding she does not expect the grand jury to be a distraction in teachers' dealings with the school board this year.
She said the only concern would be if the commissioners used the grand jury investigation to cut Board of Education funding. Anytime the budget is cut, "that definitely affects morale," she said.
Vicki Anzmann, who co-chairs Citizens for Schools, a parent lobbying group, said she was concerned the inquiry could make it difficult to turn the board's attention to issues important to parents.