School board refocus urged; Suits, investigations hurting students, PTA council says; 'Hypocrisy' issue raised


The Carroll County school board must turn its attention from the lawsuits, grand jury investigations and inquiries into bungled construction projects that have captivated members for the last year and focus on students, PTA representatives said last night.

"We have injured [students'] innocence," Sykesville parent Linda Murphy told the Carroll County Council of PTAs.

"They're questioning the system's guidelines. They're questioning the system's rules," Murphy said. "They're questioning what they see as the system's hypocrisy.

"We need to raise our awareness of what they have heard and read, because we're the ones who tell them to get dressed and go to school because it's the best place to go. Well, now many of them are questioning who's making decisions for them," Murphy said.

A team of independent investigators hired by the school board to conduct an inquiry into bungled construction projects released its findings last week. Led by Richard D. Bennett, former U.S. attorney for Maryland, the investigators chronicled a series of errors by the school system's construction department. They portrayed it as beset by chaos and inexperience and ill-prepared to handle the building of schools in a rapidly growing county.

Jean Wasmer, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs, said she was angered and saddened by the report.

"It was very upsetting mainly because we're not talking about one or two mistakes," she said yesterday afternoon. "It seems to be a consistent pattern about the way business was run in the school system."

The 100-page report documented cases in which school officials accelerated projects despite warnings from architects and contractors of construction problems, appeared to favor certain contractors in the bidding process and accepted substitutions of cheaper building materials without later accounting for the money presumably saved.

As the umbrella group for the county's Parent-Teacher Associations, the council includes 21 PTA presidents, county principals and delegates to some schools as voting members.

Wasmer said the council wanted to discuss the Bennett report and to ask the school board to make necessary changes and quickly return its focus to the county's 27,000 students.

"We want them to make their decisions to be loyal to the children first, not to the administration," Wasmer said. "The administration [comprises] adults, and they can take care of themselves. We need to look out for the kids.

"Money has been wasted and taken away from our kids, focus has been taken away from our kids, and integrity and honor have been taken away, and we want the Board of Education to act swiftly and make decisions that will give back to the kids."

The council did not place blame or make specific suggestions about firings or personnel changes. Rather, it asked the school board to make necessary changes -- and to make them quickly.

The parents and teachers also said it might help rebuild public trust for the board to release the full, unedited version of Bennett's report.

Ten percent of the investigators' findings were sealed and passed directly to the Carroll County state's attorney's office. State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said last week he will direct the grand jury to broaden its inquiry to investigate possible kickback schemes, thefts, misconduct in office and perjury.

"To get it all out and get moving in the right direction would be far more productive than going at it piecemeal," said Bill Ullrich, secretary of the council. "I can't go and ask the [county commissioners] to fully fund the school budget when I'm not sure that everything is being taken care of."

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