The Carroll County Board of Education voted 4-1 last night to hire a top-flight Baltimore law firm to represent it to deal with several construction problems that have led to lawsuits and a county grand jury investigation.
A letter to the board from Miles & Stockbridge -- released last night -- confirmed that the firm will represent the school system "in connection with the review of contracts for the construction of Cranberry Station Elementary School, the wastewater treatment plant for Francis Scott Key High School, and related matters."
Board President Gary W. Bauer said he hopes that the firm can shed light on a grand jury investigation that he says has been mostly secret. "The grand jury -- we don't know what they're investigating. That's what he'll find out for us," he said, pointing to Neal M. Janey, who represented the firm at the meeting.
Board member Susan W. Krebs, who has said publicly that she has testified before the grand jury, was the lone dissenter. Krebs said the idea of hiring a firm was good but complained that the recommendation came from Superintendent William H. Hyde and that board members found out about the proposal Tuesday.
"The board did not think about it or look at other firms," she said.
Janey said the scope of its duties is unclear. "I just got retained a half-hour ago," said Janey. "We'll have to sit down with the client and go from there."
But he said that helping the school system defend itself is within the scope of the contract, and that the firm could do a thorough review of the construction contracts.
A Harvard Law School graduate, Janey was appointed Baltimore city solicitor in 1988 and saw the city through several major investigations. As a former federal prosecutor, he also has had experience conducting grand jury investigations.
A Carroll County grand jury that was impaneled in May has been extended indefinitely at the request of its members to continue an investigation of school construction problems in the past year.
Grand jurors have also heard testimony from county Budget Director Steven D. Powell. The panel could file criminal charges or issue a report of its findings.
At the beginning of the evening, the board heard more than two hours of public comment about the proposed 2000-2001 school calendar. The issue drew a large crowd to the monthly meeting. More than half of the 17 speakers asked that the county close schools or excuse students during the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Elementary school teachers also elicited vigorous applause when they pleaded for restoration of four half-days for planning time in next year's calendar.
By 8 p.m., the board had voted to grant the teachers' request but had not decided the question of the Jewish holidays.
Saying it would be impractical to close schools for all religious holidays, the board had proposed accommodating students whose holidays fall when schools are open by considering these lawful absences with a written request from a parent. The students would not be denied perfect-attendance certificates.
That's what happened to Andy Deitchman, a ninth-grader at Liberty High School, when he missed one day for Yom Kippur and was denied perfect attendance.
Andy told the board of his missed schoolwork: "It's a real pain trying to make those things up. Please be considerate of those of the Jewish faith."
Debbie Stevens of Finksburg said her kindergartner didn't get perfect attendance at Sandymount Elementary School. "I said, 'We're Jewish,' and she asked, 'Why can't I be Christian?' How can I teach her to respect other religions, if they don't respect hers?" Stevens asked. She requested that schools be closed, or at least have no important work, on the two holidays.
Andy's father, Philip Deitchman of Eldersburg, asked the board members to set an example, saying, "The Carroll County school system has put one religion above another."
Board members Krebs and C. Scott Stone worried about the number of religious holidays, noting court cases that said schools could close for the secular reason of high absenteeism. Carroll does not have that situation, with 93 percent or better attendance on the Jewish holidays, said Vernon F. Smith, assistant superintendent for administration.
Leaving parents to make a request takes the school board out of the position of trying to decide which religious holidays to observe, they said.
Board member Ann M. Ballard said because the holidays are on the calendars, "maybe we need to make sure they look at the calendar when they are scheduling these events," whether tests or extracurricular events.