Carroll school board sees only minor problems; Despite investigations, few desire big changes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Facing millions of dollars in lawsuits and a grand jury probe, most members of the Carroll County school board hold steadfast to this position: The school system's problems have been exaggerated, and no reforms are needed in the way the board conducts business.

The exception is a more personal concern, held widely on the board: That members, who have engaged in public bickering, need to get along better.

"I feel comfortable with everything going on," said school board President Gary W. Bauer. "I don't have concerns. Maybe other board members have concerns."

But when asked to list some accomplishments of the board in the past year, Bauer said, "That's a good question. I can't think of anything offhand."

After pausing, Bauer said he is impressed that the board has worked collaboratively with the county commissioners.

"We have been continuing to work with the commissioners on some of the hot issues like the new high school," Bauer said. "The commissioners have stepped up and said, 'Let's see if we can find another site.' That seems like a positive."

All five elected members of the school board, plus Superintendent William H. Hyde, who serves as the board's secretary and treasurer, were interviewed over the last week and asked what, if any, changes the school board needs to make.

A Columbia University scholar who trains school board members nationwide said that a board facing legal battles and turmoil should own up to its mistakes.

"The best thing they could do is go before the public and say, 'We have problems,' " said Carol A. Gresser, director of the Institute for School Board Leadership at the university's Teachers College and former president of the New York City Board of Education.

"You are a servant of the people who elected you," she said. "You have an obligation to address their concerns and ask for their support.

"A little humility here would go a long way," she said.

Several months ago, a county grand jury decided to exercise its right to make inquiries and began examining the school system. According to a source close to the investigation, jurors are investigating the school board's oversight of several construction projects -- which were either over budget or mismanaged -- and is asking how it holds school administrators accountable.

The school system is facing a $45 million defamation lawsuit filed by the original contractor at Cranberry Station Elementary school, a million-dollar lawsuit and possible state penalties for construction work at Francis Scott Key High School and possible delays in the construction of a second high school in Westminster.

There does appear to be growing concern among board members that the panel has appeared too divided in public. Members have squabbled over how a performance audit of the school system should be conducted and over how active the board should be in setting districtwide goals. Some residents walked out of one meeting in disgust.

On Sept. 23, the board -- for the first time in memory, according to members -- held a meeting where they filled out self-evaluation forms and discussed what improvements are necessary. Most described a lack of trust among members and the need to focus on a common agenda.

"We just need to sit down and talk among ourselves and find out where everyone is coming from," Bauer said.

Ann M. Ballard, the board's vice president, agreed with Bauer. "I don't think anything needs to be done," she said. "We need to learn to work together. But we all have the best interests of the children at heart. I know I do. I can't think of any drastic changes we need to make."

Added member Joseph D. Mish Jr.: "We need to learn to communicate with one another. But there is always a period of tension whenever a new board member comes on."

An exception was Susan W. Krebs, the new board member, who for months has been calling for the board to become far more active in setting goals and holding staff accountable. Krebs said the board must now look aggressively at why several construction projects landed in court.

For example, she said, the board should ensure that the facilities department, which oversees construction projects, is examined first in a performance audit.

Current plans are to audit that department later.

"We need an audit done -- not in three years but now -- of our facilities department, past and present, to give us recommendations on how to avoid continuing with these problems," Krebs said. "We need to get the perception of unaccountability behind us. It's like a cloud hanging over us, and we need to clear the air."

Board member C. Scott Stone said it was unfair to ask him what reforms are necessary because that assumed that the grand jury inquiry and lawsuits were serious problems that required attention.

" 'Have you stopped beating your wife' -- it's that kind of question, and I'm not going to take the bait," Stone said. "I'm not going to answer that in the context you asked."

Stone accused The Sun of biased reporting in its coverage of the grand jury and construction lawsuits.

"The Sunpaper has changed its character," he said. "It is nearly a tabloid, with a markedly different 'guilty until proven otherwise' attitude in the last 18 months."

Mish said staff with more expertise in construction have been hired in the facilities department in the past year, and that he is inclined to wait for the results of the performance audit, and for recommendations from Hyde, before reaching conclusions.

"I don't substitute my judgment for his," Mish said of the superintendent. "That's why we hired him."

Hyde said that, aside from minor changes in the way the board structures meetings -- focusing more, for example, on recognizing achievements of staff or students -- he saw no need for major reform.

"I don't have suggestions regarding changes," he said.

Hyde added that the board seems to be functioning effectively, given the duties assigned county school boards under state law.

Gresser of the school board institute said that while a board should not micro-manage its staff, it must be responsible for setting the agenda for a system. She said that at this point, Carroll's board should be demanding that its superintendent examine whether problems exist in the construction department and then deliver a report.

"They need to be aware of what is going on, respond to what is going on and question," Gresser said. "If they seem reluctant to set goals and they wait for a superintendent to come in with goals and they say, 'sure,' that's terrible. They need to wake up."

Dan Jansiewicz, a professor of political science at Carroll Community College who follows local politics, suggested that the board members set aside some time to discuss among themselves the lawsuits and other troubles in the school system.

The board had scheduled a retreat for Oct. 19. It has been postponed, Bauer said, replaced by a meeting to discuss new strategies for contract bargaining with school employees. The retreat has not been rescheduled, he said.

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