Immediately after Baltimore County's school board approved an $891 million operating budget request without comment last week, school board President Donald L. Arnold tried to ward off any concerns that the process wasn't public.
"We have discussed this in great detail at numerous public meetings, so this is not a rubber stamp," he said.
But the board's actions throughout the budget-making process, even if not meant to shut out the public, may have given the public a different impression.
Weeks before the vote approving the budget, board members and Superintendent Joe A. Hairston met secretly. Then, because of a snowstorm, the board rescheduled its public hearing on the budget on the same night as the Baltimore County PTA's annual meeting. Finally, when the board voted on the spending proposal last week, it did so quickly without any members making comments.
The board's final budget request receives plaudits from parents for new initiatives to reduce class sizes and hire technology teachers in elementary schools and for 3 percent raises for all employees. But some parents, former superintendents and even one board member say the secrecy wasn't necessary.
"It was an error in judgment," said Michael P. Kennedy, the board member. "That's not the way we operate, and it gives us a black eye."
Drafting a budget is difficult, even during a period of prosperity, board members said. This year's process was made all the more difficult, they said, because the state hasn't indicated how much funding counties will get and because the county has a new executive.
Given the uncertainty, Arnold, the school board president, said members needed to discuss the possible direction of the budget with the superintendent without unduly alarming parents and embarrassing the new county executive, James T. Smith Jr.
The board involved the public, Arnold said. Parents had an opportunity to voice their opinions at five budget meetings throughout the county in addition to the public hearing. They were also welcome to watch the board discuss the superintendent's proposal at a work session.
"Nobody was trying to lock out the public. If anything, we were trying to provide something to the public that they could look at," Arnold said.
As evidence of the board's sensitivity to the public, Arnold said that it added to its budget request the 3 percent raises for school employees, which many speakers requested during the various hearings.
Hairston said the board was being "victimized unfairly."
"They are ultrasensitive to the public. They try to be responsive," he said. "Many people are misperceiving" the secret meetings. "If there was an innocent night, that was it."
Whether the budget ultimately passed by the county winds up including the raises and other extra spending approved by the board remains in doubt because money is tight.
Stuart Berger, a former Baltimore County superintendent, said the financial situation was no reason for the board to talk behind closed doors with the current superintendent.
"I don't see what it got them, short of bad publicity. I don't see why they can't do this in public. I mean, resources are going to be limited no matter what," Berger said.
"I believe the reason is they want to be everything to everyone. Dr. Hairston should make the tough decisions he thinks are right, the board should make the tough decisions the board thinks is right, but the board doesn't want to do that."
The board was initially assailed in early January, after eight of its 13 members divided into two groups to avoid the requirements of the Maryland Open Meetings Act, then met secretly with Hairston to discuss rising health care costs, raising salaries and generally coping with tight finances.
The action did not violate the letter of the Open Meetings Act, but critics said it violated the spirit of the law.
The board's public hearing was rescheduled because of snow and was held Jan. 30, the same night that the PTA Council of Baltimore County held its annual meeting, causing many active parents to miss the public hearing or leave before making comment.
Six board members attended the public hearing, including the student member. Three other board members attended the PTA event.
Jan Thomas, a Timonium parent who monitors the school system's budget for the PTA Council, said the timing of the public hearing made it difficult for interested parents to stay on top of the budget.
"It's a public hearing, a board meeting, it's what they do, get public input, and I don't think reading the minutes gives you the same feel," Thomas said.
At its regular meeting Wednesday night, the board listened to the schools finance officer describe the reworked budget request and then voted without any member making a comment.
The presentation and vote took a few minutes.
While the approved budget request includes cuts and new spending, it wasn't anything the board couldn't have discussed openly, parents said.
"It's nothing that the board should not have been able to discuss in a work session," said Michael Franklin, president of the PTA Council.
Franklin said the board's secrecy and silence gave the impression of back-room deal-making on the budget, and he said, "I don't believe doing anything behind closed doors is worth it."
Arnold, the school board president, said the board didn't need to discuss the budget before voting on it last week because the board had discussed the spending plan at its work session and other public meetings.
And, Arnold said, members met privately with Hairston simply to "bounce off ideas" before the superintendent submitted his proposal for public review.
"It was more to guide the superintendent a little bit," Arnold said, "because he asked for some guidance for the preparation of his budget."
The three superintendents who preceded Hairston said they didn't meet with the board before making their proposals.
"The staff's job was to recommend, and the board's job was to hold public hearings, debate and make a decision on what is to be passed on to the county executive," said Robert Y. Dubel, superintendent from 1976 to 1992.
Anthony G. Marchione, another former superintendent, said he was "surprised" to read that the board had talked secretly.
"I did not have preliminary discussions with the board," he said. "We prepared a budget we thought we needed, presented it to the board, the board had a work session and they added or subtracted."