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Audit finds minor flaws


Consultants delivered the first part of a planned three-year audit of Carroll County schools yesterday, recommending little more than tinkering with the administration of the 27,000-student system.

In an hourlong presentation before the school board and the county commissioners, KPMG presented numerous suggestions to improve the organizational structure, efficiency and technology of the system.

The consultants noted particular progress in the embattled school construction department since it was last audited in 1997.

The audit also presented recommendations that consultants said would save the school system about $2.8 million in annual and one-time expenditures, plus $500,000 per construction project - a claim that school board President C. Scott Stone disputed.

"It appears to me to be a misnomer to say there is $2.8 million in savings out there when some of these staff positions are being reallocated rather than abolished and some of these suggestions don't have cost estimates for implementation," Stone said of the suggestions.

Stone and others took particular issue with the firm's suggestion that the school system could generate $1 million annually by serving breakfast to more students.

That recommendation did not include estimates of how much more it would cost to serve the extra breakfasts.

"I don't know how you can say to either one of these boards that we can generate $1 million in revenue by serving breakfast, without telling us how much it would cost us to expand the food services operations," Stone said.

KPMG project manager Melanie James-Cosgrove said the firm was unable to estimate the cost of having more cafeteria staff on duty and of busing students to school earlier.

Seventeen county schools offer breakfast in their cafeterias, according to the consulting firm.

Facing accusations of mismanagement in its construction department, the Carroll Board of Education agreed last July to the county commissioners' demand for an audit by outside consultants - a review of its performance that county officials said was long overdue.

Yesterday's presentation - to all five school board members and all three commissioners - ended the first of three segments.

The first phase included evaluation of school construction, special education, information technology, instructional technology, food services and the continuous improvement team, which crosses departmental boundaries to focus on improving classroom and staff learning.

The other two-thirds of the system will be evaluated in the remaining two years of the contract.

For this first phase, KPMG staff held meetings, collected about 100 documents, conducted 50 one-on-one interviews and 20 focus group discussions, surveyed about 40 Carroll school employees, visited 10 Carroll schools and polled parents and business and community members.

The firm also surveyed six other Maryland school systems and three outside the state to determine how they did things compared with Carroll.

The consultants offered an individualized report for each department reviewed, in addition to a 42-page overview of commendations and recommendations.

Those ranged from ironing out the inconsistencies in administrative titles to improving staff morale; from collecting more Medicaid funds available for special education to replacing computer software in the construction office with programs better equipped to handle budgets.

Several of the firm's recommendations - putting the county's special education supervisors in regional offices to cut down on travel time and save money - are in the works, school officials said.

"I guess we should all be flattered to realize that this process is pinpointing a lot of things already being done," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell after the presentation. "It reinforces what our school system is all about."

Other recommendations, however, were new.

The firm suggested that county and school officials create a committee of experts in grading, utilities, erosion control and other subjects to research potential sites for new school construction.

It emphasized the need for an "investigative process" that uses a standardized checklist for scoring sites to minimize "political posturing and introduce more accountability."

"We want to inject some level of accountability into the process and make this an objective process," said Paul M. Airey, a senior consultant with KPMG who focused on the construction office.

Airey said a more analytical process might better weigh the ramifications of building on a county-owned property that requires a significant amount of site work as opposed to buying another, more building-ready site.

Dell took issue with those comments, an apparent reference to the site for a new high school in Westminster where school officials estimated that the hilly terrain would add $5 million in site-preparation costs.

"You do realize that we can only purchase a site that's for sale?" he asked. "And that here in beautiful Carroll County, we have a lot of rolling hills?"

The county commission is paying the Philadelphia office of KPMG $528,500 over three years to evaluate school system.

The audit was a source of tension between the two boards last summer, after the commissioners demanded answers to questions surrounding school officials' management of the agency's construction program.

That included oversight of Cranberry Station Elementary, which opened last year about $1.4 million over budget.

When the school board resisted, the commissioners voted to withhold $1 million from the school budget until it agreed to the audit.

The board agreed last July to a full performance audit of all departments, ending a four-month tug of war with the commission, and the withheld $1 million was transferred to the school system June 12.

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