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Suit filed against school board

Ellicott City parent Melody Higgins filed a six-count lawsuit yesterday against the Howard County Board of Education and the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, which refused last week to consider claims she made alleging violations by the school panel in June.

"The Open Meetings Compliance Board did not even try to do its job," Higgins said. "So, just to make sure that this [school] board of ours knows I'm serious, I've filed a complaint with the court."

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On July 28, Higgins asked the compliance board to investigate the legitimacy of a phone-poll decision school board members made and decisions members made during a closed meeting regarding county schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's salary.

Her queries were too broad for the compliance board, which dismissed Higgins' complaint because it did "not allege any specific violation," Maryland Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz explained in a letter mailed to her Thursday.

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Schwartz's letter said Higgins may resubmit a more detailed grievance if she chooses.

"I don't think that Ms. Higgins is going to be able to allege any kind of specific violation, because we have not violated the [open meetings] act," said Mark Blom, the county school system's chief attorney.

Blom said situations similar to those Higgins complained of had been deemed legal in previous compliance board decisions and that the school board was being more open than it had to be in the instances she noted.

The phone poll was conducted to get information to the public immediately rather than making people wait for the next scheduled board meeting, Blom said, and O'Rourke's salary information was promptly divulged, something few school systems do.

"We're very appreciative of the fact that the compliance board is establishing a threshold here that complainants need to overcome in order to spare us from the distraction and the waste of time," Blom said yesterday afternoon, unaware of the lawsuit that resulted from the dismissal of the open-meetings complaint.

Blom could not be reached last night after the papers filed in Howard County Circuit Court became public.

The suit was filed by Higgins' attorney, Allen Dyer, who is awaiting a decision in a separate open-meetings suit he filed against the school board in Circuit Court three years ago.

Higgins claims, among other things, that:

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The school superintendent is a public officer under the Maryland Constitution and not eligible for a raise during his term.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board has acted incorrectly in refusing to answer Higgins' original complaint.

Decisions made outside of an open meeting are null, such as the June 20 phone-poll agreement to rescind an amendment to O'Rourke's contract that promised to renew his term next year or pay him the equivalent of one year's salary, currently $197,300.

Decisions made in closed session are unlawful, such as the June 17 determination to increase O'Rourke's salary and compensation package.

"I am just tired of this board going behind closed doors and making decisions that affect the taxpayers without any taxpayer input," Higgins said. "I've had enough. They say you can't fight city hall. Well, I'm going to try."

Higgins is asking the court to interpret vague sections of the Open Meetings Act, to make e-mail communication between more than two defendant board members available to the public and to order the defendants to pay legal fees.

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School board Vice Chairman Patricia S. Gordon said Higgins is entitled to her opinion but that the board has not violated any laws.

"As a public officer, one must accept the fact that one is going to be subject to criticism," Gordon said. "That's something we're going to have to bear and live through."

The school board is awaiting a verdict in the Dyer case, proceedings of which took up three years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The presiding judge, James B. Dudley, has not said when he will issue his decision.

Higgins said she is ready for the challenge if her case turns out to be parallel.

"These people are in violation of the law, and somebody in this county has to stand up and make them stop," Higgins said.


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