School system begins addressing problems

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anne Arundel County school system officials said last week that they have begun taking action to rectify some of the problems identified in an internal audit of human resources practices, including missing background checks and deficient compensation policies.

"I think we're back on track," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

At the request of school board members and school system administrators, auditors examined human resources practices between Nov. 1, 2002, and Oct. 31, 2004. The report describes documents missing from personnel files, staff members being paid consultant fees before they were hired, and others receiving credit for experience not relevant to their current positions.

Smith said last week that he did not agree with all of the audit's observations, but that the school system has developed an action plan during the past month to remedy immediate concerns, such as ensuring that all employees undergo criminal background checks. Fewer than half of 112 randomly selected employees' personnel files contained them, according to the report.

Many of the problems stem from policies that are silent on how to compensate employees not represented by union contracts, said Walter W. Federowicz, the school system's supervisor of internal audit. "Hopefully, this is going to drive the creation of policy to give a clear direction on how it is they should process the items that are identified in the report," he said.

Smith and school board members concurred.

"What we need to do as a board is create policy for better guidelines so we can make sure ... we still have the trust of the public to spend their dollars," said school board President Konrad M. Wayson.

But some board members said that despite criticism by the auditor, no policies were violated.

"If there is no policy, how can you say something is not fair?" said board member Michael G. Leahy. "That's why we have to address it right now as a board."

School system officials are drafting personnel guidelines as part of a long-term overhaul of school board policies. Areas concerning experience pay will be considered first.

The report stated that 11 new hires to the professional support and executive staff received five or more years of credit beyond their relevant experience.

Union contracts govern how experience is considered for most of the school system's employees. Teachers can transfer only up to 15 years of experience credits, even if they have spent more time in classrooms elsewhere, said Sheila M. Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

Questions raised

Also, the report raised questions about the reorganization of senior staffers in 2003 to create a deputy superintendent position and four assistant superintendent positions.

Four of those employees received raises of more than 10 percent, up to almost $13,000. Smith said the changes were designed to create no additional cost for the system because of savings from eliminating other vacancies.

Materials from Smith dated Sept. 2, 2003, indicate the staffing changes would result in a $12,000 savings. A memo dated Sept. 10, 2003, lists the salary changes, although some board members said they did not recall receiving it. However, the information was sent the week after the school board voted on the reorganization. Smith said if board members were not comfortable voting because of an absence of information, they could have delayed their decision.

Last year, elected county officials initially vetoed a supplemental appropriation for gifted and talented and other programs because system administrators received more than $600,000 in raises through the creation of new experience steps; the school board later removed the new steps, giving administrators a cost-of-living increase instead. County officials then approved the additional appropriation.

James Sollers, president of the union representing custodians, food service and transportation workers, told the school board at Wednesday's meeting that 10 custodial positions remain vacant, and increasing square footage totals require adding 21 custodial jobs.

In addition, the audit found that four employees received $3,000 or $6,000 in consulting fees, including travel to the school system, before their hiring by the system. In another case, auditors could not locate the resulting report from the consulting contract; neither the employee nor Smith's executive secretary could find it.

Smith said he was never interviewed by the auditor and had a copy in his office. Synthia J. Shilling, assistant superintendent for legal and personnel services, said her assistant found the report Monday in the files of former department leaders.

Analysis suggested

"There needs to be an analysis of what other school districts do in recruiting top leadership for the district," Smith said. However, he said that the ability to negotiate salaries was necessary to attract top talent.

Board member Edward P. Carey of Brooklyn Park agreed that finding top talent nationally was important for instructional positions, but added that professional experience was more critical for business-side positions.

Leahy said: "We as a school system have to decide whether we want to create a tracking system for [executive and professional support staff] or instruct the superintendent under specific policy that sets the boundaries but gives him significant latitude" to determine compensation for those groups.

Wayson noted that several memos in the report date to 1997 and 1998, several years before Smith was hired.

"No other board has done anything to correct the problem, and I can guarantee you this board will," Wayson said.

Audit of human resources practices

An auditor has sharply criticized the human resources practices of the Anne Arundel County school system, and administrators have said they are taking corrective steps.

Among the auditor's findings:

Fifty-two of 112 randomly selected employees did not have a valid criminal background check on file.

One hundred thirteen teachers attended more than six meetings outside the classroom during the school year, requiring substitutes to replace them, despite a policy limiting instructors to six meeting-related absences.

Two employees received performance-based raises totaling more than $27,500 though no policy exists to allow raises based on performance.

No process exists to ensure that the county school system is reimbursed for 12 employees "loaned" to the state Department of Education.

Source: Anne Arundel County public schools

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