Head of school board makes apology for construction decisions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three months after the release of a report highly critical of Carroll County's school construction department, Board of Education President C. Scott Stone accepted responsibility for poor decisions that have been made and apologized to the community yesterday, saying it is time to "join hands together and constructively apply the lessons of the past to our dreams for tomorrow."

Read quickly and matter-of-factly, Stone's prepared statement came at the end of a sometimes heated, two-hour discussion during which school board members questioned staff, expressed concern that they had sometimes been misled and demanded more complete information from school administrators and legal counsel.

It was the board's first discussion of a report prepared by investigators who conducted an internal review and documented "consistent failures" in the handling of school construction. Released in March, the 100-page report described the department as beset by chaos, lacking experience and unprepared to handle the demand to build schools rapidly in a developing county.

"There is no doubt that some employees of Carroll County Public Schools made poor decisions relative to recent school construction projects," Stone said in the one-page statement that he read at the conclusion of the board's work session. But those mistakes, he said, "were not the result of incompetent workers but of a system overwhelmed by the scope and magnitude of recent school construction activities. At this time, I have no reason to believe that any employee made decisions for reasons other than they thought them to be in the best interest of the school system."

More than 30 audience members - including Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes; County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier; all four school board candidates; Lester Surber, the former supervisor of school facilities who oversaw the construction department during many of the botched projects; and a smattering of school employees and county staff - gathered in the public meeting room of the Board of Education building to hear the school board's long-awaited discussion. Stone did not set aside time for public comment, a decision that drew objections from several residents who attended the meeting.

Wastewater plant

During the session, which covered everything from the reasons behind an expensive contract dispute with the original contractor of Cranberry Station Elementary to the more qualified staff hired within the past two years to the school construction department, board members questioned why school officials continued construction of an $800,000 wastewater treatment plant at Francis Scott Key High despite not having the required environmental and construction permits.

Assistant superintendent for administration Vernon F. Smith Jr. explained that the project was continued because "we had at the time significant confidence, I guess, that the process was appropriate and would be approved" by the Maryland Department of the Environment. When board member Susan W. Krebs asked whether Smith thought a judge would excuse a teen-ager caught driving without a license because the teen was pretty confident he'd get his license, Smith said, "Probably not."

Permits for the treatment plant were not approved and are under review. In the meantime, the idle plant serves as a short-term holding tank while the school system pays $5,600 a month to haul raw sewage from Francis Scott Key to the wastewater treatment plant at Runnymede Elementary.

Yet Krebs, whose comments and questions dominated the meeting, said she is concerned that problems documented by investigators continue. She asked her colleagues to expand the board's book of policies and procedures to provide staff with more guidance, to play a more active role in decision-making rather than accepting "spoon-fed information" from the superintendent and staff, and to not shy away from administrative changes.

"I have no confidence in the current administration," she said. "If a student misbehaves in school, something happens. He is suspended. We do not draw up an action plan and move forward" - an obvious jab at Superintendent William H. Hyde and his response to investigators' findings. She also took aim at Smith by complimenting the "really positive effect" of hiring a new director of school support services - a job that Smith held until he was promoted to assistant superintendent.

Noting a laundry list of what she called "$30 million of unanticipated expenditures of taxpayers' dollars," Krebs also criticized her colleagues for blaming others - county commissioners and the county's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly- for financial problems that are the administration's fault. "No one has accepted any responsibility for it. I am accepting responsibility for fixing it," she said.

Stone said no time has been scheduled to continue yesterday's discussion or to follow up on suggestions made by board members - aside from the "continuous improvement plan" update at monthly board meetings.

Despite repeated calls for personnel changes - school board candidate Lisa Breslin recently called for the elected members to take a vote of confidence in the superintendent, and candidates Thomas G. Hiltz and Susan Holt have said Hyde should resign - it appears that Hyde has no intention of stepping down.

In an interview Friday, Hyde said he is "still very confident in my abilities."

School board members Joseph D. Mish Jr. and Ann M. Ballard said in interviews after the meeting that terminating Hyde's contract is prohibitively expensive. "If the new board coming in doesn't want to renew his contract in two years, that's one thing," Ballard said. "But to dismiss him before it's up would require major dollars."

Terms of contract

According to his contract, if Hyde steps down or is removed by the state superintendent of schools, he would waive his right to any unaccrued salary and benefits.

If the school board begins termination proceedings with the superintendent's agreement, Hyde would be eligible for his salary - $118,965 for the fiscal year that began Saturday plus an annual $6,400 car allowance - for the remaining two years of his contract as well as the financial equivalent of 50 days' vacation time and up to 250 sick days, according to the contract. He also would receive free health insurance for the rest of his life and life insurance until age 70, said human resources director William Rooney.

Statement given by school board's Stone at meeting

Here is the prepared statement read by C. Scott Stone, school board president, at yesterday's meeting:

There is no doubt that some employees of Carroll County Public Schools made poor decisions relative to recent school construction projects. The Board of Education accepts responsibility and sincerely apologizes to the citizens of Carroll County for those decisions. The Plan of Continuous Improvement presented to the Board on May 10th was, in part, developed to "improve the effectiveness and efficiency" of the Department of Construction so that such decisions would not be repeated. Moreover, implementation progress regarding each of the 29 recommendations contained in the Plan will be provided to the public and the Board at the Board's regular monthly meetings.

Based on the information available to the Board, I have concluded that the poor decisions made regarding school construction projects were not the result of incompetent workers but of a system overwhelmed by the scope and magnitude of recent school construction activities. At this time, I have no reason to believe that any employee made decisions for reasons other than they thought them to be in the best interest of the school system. Nevertheless, a number of steps have been or are being taken to improve the situation. These steps include

new or modified Board policies and administrative procedures;

employing professional staffs with construction training and experience;

job reassignments;

employee training and awareness;

and, increased communications with County government.

Each of us, undoubtedly, has a strong interest in Carroll County Public Schools providing excellent educational opportunities to all Carroll County students. I, for one, believe that excellence is unattainable without taking appropriate risks. According to Kouzes and Posner, "... people cannot take risks unless they feel safe, unless they feel secure that they will not be unfairly treated, embarrassed, harassed, or harmed by taking such action." While everyone is accountable for their own actions and decisions, we should stop trying to figure out who is wrong and correct that which is not working. As a community, therefore, we must join hands together and constructively apply the lessons of the past to our dreams for tomorrow. Remembering all the while, that no human being is exempt from failure, and the greatest risk in life is not taking one.

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