Carroll schools to consider safeguards

Sharon Fischer has rarely shied away from speaking her mind.

But last summer, when Fischer voiced concerns about the former Carroll County school superintendent's decision to award pay raises and new job titles to members of his executive leadership team less than a month before he retired, Fischer's friends were worried.


Some nervously asked the next morning whether she still had her job as a kindergarten assistant. Others only half-jokingly suggested the union president not answer her phone for fear that bad news was imminent.

Although Fischer was not fired, demoted or reprimanded for publicly criticizing William H. Hyde, her co-workers' concerns illustrate the fearful work climate that existed and a void in employee protections that school board members hope to fill.


After school-construction problems and multimillion-dollar lawsuits that some say could have been prevented if employees had felt comfortable raising red flags, the Carroll Board of Education is expected to consider a proposed whistle-blower policy at its monthly meeting today. It apparently would be the first of its kind among Baltimore-area school systems.

Crafted to provide procedures for investigating employee concerns, ensuring employee confidentiality and protecting employees against retaliation, the policy also would cover community members who alert authorities to improper actions by school employees, contractors or agents.

"I think employees ought to have the feeling that they can say what's on their minds and not have any fear of reprisal," interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "I would like to think that no one would take any reprisal against anyone but, in fact, some people do and some people may perceive that reprisals would be taken against them. Whether it's true or not, the perception becomes the reality."

Nearly six months after Hyde left Carroll County with two years remaining on his contract, Carroll schools employees are reluctant to speak on the record about their former boss. In August, Hyde took a job as superintendent of a one-school system in a Montana mountain town.

School board members, to whom Hyde reported, also are hesitant to discuss anything involving the former schools chief - partially from a desire to put the investigation- and lawsuit-laden past behind them and partially from fear of additional legal problems.

Shortly after Hyde unexpectedly left, Carroll school board members met privately to caution one another against publicly criticizing Hyde, whose attorney had sent what the board interpreted as a veiled threat of a defamation suit, according to four current and former school board members.

"The possibility of legal action was definitely referred to," said C. Scott Stone, who served as board president last year. "I considered it the kind of posturing that attorneys do when they gently remind the parties involved that there are other courses of action that they could pursue and they hope they would not need to pursue it."

Board members, however, took the hint, and were "very sensitive to public comments and to not provoking them," Stone said, especially since the board had settled a defamation lawsuit a year earlier with the original contractor of Westminster's Cranberry Station Elementary School.


Shortly after the board hired Ecker as interim superintendent, Stone suggested that a whistle-blower policy might be beneficial "in an effort to preclude the types of accusations and events that transpired prior to his tenure."

Asked to elaborate, Stone hedged - even when explaining why Carroll County needs a policy designed to encourage employees to speak up about possible wrongdoing within the school system.

"Concerns related to school construction activities," Stone finally offered.

For two years, those concerns included an internal inquiry and grand jury investigation into bungled school construction projects that cost county taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuits and overruns.

"I think this type of policy would provide a mechanism for those kinds of concerns to be lodged," Stone said. "You shouldn't have to worry about your job when you're doing the right thing. When you want to raise a concern about an impropriety, your job shouldn't be on the line."

Adding that he has heard from employees who felt prohibited from raising concerns, Stone said, "These were good, hard-working employees who may have seen one or more things that didn't seem quite right and weren't comfortable approaching people in the system and at the time were not comfortable approaching board members, either. Both of those situations are unacceptable."


Teachers and staff members felt comfortable approaching Susan W. Krebs, president of the five-member board, and she got an earful.

"I had people coming up to me and talking to me all the time from all corners of the county expressing concern about things that were not illegal but may be an abuse of power that was not so cut and dried," she said.

Asked to elaborate, the woman who made her mark on the board by challenging administrators and demanding accountability, demurred.

"That's in the past," Krebs said. "I need to be careful what I say, and I want us to move forward."

Ecker directed his staff and Baltimore attorney Edmund J. O'Meally, who represents Carroll schools, to research whether other Maryland school systems have whistle-blower policies that could be used as models. Finding only one - a 15-year-old policy on reporting and handling fraudulent actions by school employees, agents or contractors in Montgomery County public schools - O'Meally looked to school systems from New Mexico to Florida to Washington state, and state and federal laws.

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal employees who expose wrongdoing on the job. Others might be protected under state statutes or other federal laws. Maryland has a narrow statute covering reports of wrongdoing by state employees in the executive branch of government.


O'Meally said he does not know of any Maryland county other than Montgomery with a policy similar to the one under consideration in Carroll. His law firm, Blum Yumkas Mailman Gutman & Denick, does legal work for more than a dozen public school systems in Maryland, from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.

Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Katherine D. Harrison is not sure what prompted the addition of the policy in her county. School district representatives and legal counsel in Baltimore and Baltimore, Howard, Harford and Prince George's counties expressed surprise when asked whether their counties had whistle-blower policies.

"In representing the school system for 18 years, it's just never been brought up," said P. Tyson Bennett, a lawyer for Anne Arundel County public schools.

"To the best of my knowledge, there's never been a complaint filed alleging retaliation against anyone you'd consider a whistle-blower, and there's never been any discussion of creating a policy like that."

A policy to protect employees who raise concerns would be welcomed by Fischer, president of the Carroll Association of School Employees, which represents 550 secretaries, clerks, nurses and instructional assistants in Carroll schools.

"It would help employees," she said. "It would open up the lines of communication and start to build trust between employees and the system. There's always been a fear that you don't want to say anything because you're afraid it will come back to you. I hope it works."


Fischer's union members have never approached her with concerns as serious as the problems in the school construction department - when projects were hampered by cost overruns, a wastewater treatment plant was built without state permits and a resident's driveway was paved over without his permission.

But support staff reporting problems within their schools often are wary of letting Fischer use their names when she raises their concerns with administrators.

"A lot of them will say no, and that takes some credibility away from them, but it's the fear," she said. "There's a genuine fear."