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Auditors critical of Baltimore County schools' contract process

A legislative audit of Baltimore County's public school system released Friday found that officials haven't always followed purchasing rules that would give the system the most competitively priced services and contracts.

In a review of about 10 contracts, the Department of Legislative Audits found instances in which the school system had decided to "piggyback" off other government contracts rather than use the more common process of asking for bids from multiple companies.

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"These contracts were issued by other governmental entities that allowed other jurisdictions to use the contract terms and prices," said the audit, which covered fiscal years 2013 and 2014. "However, we found that BCPS did not use the contract terms and prices established by the other government entities, but negotiated their own unique contract terms and prices."

Among the contracts the auditors criticized was a $875,000, three-year contract with SUPES Academy to train principals. The contract, which has expired, became controversial because Superintendent Dallas Dance was found in violation of the ethics policy for working for the company without getting school board approval.

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The audit said the county did not provide good reasons why the SUPES contract and others should not be competitively bid.

In the future, auditors want school officials to provide further analysis to school board members before they vote on contracts. George Sarris, the school system's executive director for fiscal services, said they agreed with the audit's findings and "have created an analytic procedure with a check list that we will use."

But the school system defended its choice of companies and contracts.

"Professional services are not commodities," Sarris said, adding that experience, references and other elements are used to decide on a contract for professional services like training.

In the case of SUPES, Rick Gay, head of purchasing, said the school system looked for other companies that provided similar services.

"There was only one and they were under federal investigation," Gay said, so they chose SUPES.

Auditors also questioned the school system's failure to have a comprehensive policy requiring competitive bids for all types of purchases "to ensure fairness and integrity in the expenditure of public funds."

The audit said other school systems have similar policies that require competitive bids for service contracts.

The school system and the auditors disagreed on how the school system should bid its roofing contracts. Auditors contend that the county schools are paying more than necessary for roofing replacements, but the county said it is not.

Auditors also found problems with the security of the school computer systems, which officials have taken steps to correct.

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