Council Chairman Ball proposes legal action against Howard school system amid ongoing review of school budget

Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball threatened possible legal action against the Howard County School System Tuesday for resisting the county auditor's requests for information as it completes a financial audit of the school system.

The move caps an increasingly contentious budget season that pushed the council to pass a measure in July that called for a financial audit of the school system and created an oversight committee to review the school system's budget.

Legal action is the county's "last option" to force the school system to provide requested information necessary to complete the financial audit, Ball said.

The financial audit includes a review of the school system's special education services, legal services and health and dental fund, which covers health benefits for employees, and will guide the work of a school budget committee proposed by Ball and passed by the council in July.

That committee began meeting in late August and is intended to provide the council with a comprehensive review of the school system's budget by next July.

Ball said the county auditor did not receive most of the requested information, prompting him to file a bill Tuesday night that would authorize the county's Office of Law to take any civil action to enforce the financial audit.

The school system was "caught off-guard" by the move, said John White, the school system's communication's director.

"We think that this [audit] can be accomplished without wasting time and resources on legal action," White said.

In an Aug. 30 email to Ball, Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose said staff have been "responsive and cooperative" with the county auditor's requests for information.

Foose wrote the requests came at "the busiest time of year in the school system"; the beginning of school and when the accounting office is closing financial books and preparing annual financial statements as it shifts to a new finance system.

Staff told the county auditor they expect to work on the auditor's requests by mid-September, Foose wrote.

The county's auditor, Craig Glendenning, declined to comment on the audit's progress because the review is ongoing.

Search for collaboration

The move comes as the board's external auditor completes a routine annual audit of the school system. The school system is also audited by the Maryland State Department of Education, the Maryland Public School Construction Program and the Maryland Office of Legislative Audits.

But the county's financial audit is far from routine and is part of a broader push for more accountability and transparency in the school system's budget process.

The school system is waiting on a letter from the county's auditor outlining the scope and timeline of the financial audit, White said.

The letter will set "a clear and understandable direction" for a collaborative process between the county and the school system, White said.

That collaborative process has been unclear so far.

Ball said the county auditor has discussed the scope of the audit with the board's external auditor and was advised there was no space for the county auditor's staff to work alongside the board's external auditor in a trailer on site.

Foose wrote the county's auditor ignored a request to follow the school system's protocol for coordinating interviews through the office of the school system's chief financial officer. The superintendent also noted the county's auditor should coordinate with the board's external auditor to coordinate the review.

Ball said the school system requested the presence of a Board of Education employee during the county auditor's interviews of staff, a request he called "unprecedented."

In a "highly unusual" move, the county's auditor struck a compromise by offering to provide a list of selected interviewees to the school system and allow an external auditor to sit in on interviews, according to Ball.

White said the school system is committed to providing the requested information.

"It is a collaborative process and it does take both sides to accomplish sides to accomplish the work," he said.

The measure is before the council, with a public hearing on Sept. 19 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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