Kamenetz considers expanding county auditor’s office to review school contracts

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is considering an expansion of the county’s independent auditor’s office so that it can review school board contracts, an idea that comes in the wake of scandals involving the former school superintendent and another school official.

Kamenetz said Monday he’s discussing the idea with members of the County Council and could include it in the budget plan he’ll unveil next month.

“I think that’s the most effective way to make sure the school board is more fully informed before making decisions about how we spend money,” Kamenetz said.

Two top county school system officials recently pleaded guilty in criminal cases: Dallas Dance, the former superintendent, pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury in county court; and Robert J. Barrett, the former executive officer for community affairs, pleaded guilty to a federal tax charge.

Dance pleaded guilty to steering no-bid contracts to a company he worked for on the side, while not reporting the income on his financial disclosure forms.

Barrett admitted to using school system letterhead to write bogus recommendation letters for federal agents who he thought were out-of-town businessmen seeking help finding deals in Baltimore. Barrett also accepted cash from the agents, and did not report it as income to the IRS.

School advocates, elected officials and political candidates have weighed in with suggestions for improving the school system in light of the Barrett and Dance cases, including calling for more audits, creating an investigator general or auditor to review the school system, banning outside employment for superintendents and tightening procurement procedures to cut down on contracts that are not bid competitively.

Gov. Larry Hogan has used the Baltimore County cases to advocate for his proposal to create a statewide investigator general position responsible for investigating reports of corruption in public school districts.

The Republican governor criticized Kamenetz last week for not publicly discussing the Barrett and Dance cases, and the state Republican Party followed up with an e-mail blast Monday saying the executive’s “silence is deafening.”

Kamenetz, a Democrat, is in his final year as county executive and is among seven leading Democrats running for governor.

Kamenetz had not spoken previously about reform proposals and said little about the Barrett and Dance cases, but on Monday he said expanding the county auditor’s office would allow the office to provide “independent feedback” to board members as they review contracts.

The main current responsibilities of the auditor’s office are to review all proposed legislation, contracts and the budget that county council members must vote on. The auditor prepares a packet of analyses for each agenda item at twice-monthly council meetings.

The school board often reviews expensive and complex contracts. Earlier this month, board members delayed voting on a seven-year, $140 million contract that would supply 133,000 laptop computers to students and teachers.

School board president Edward J. Gilliss said the school board has been asking for more money for the last two years to add staff to help board members analyze contracts and budget issues.

Gilliss said the county executive’s proposal appears to be “consistent with the school board’s desires.”

“The board has substantial responsibilities including budgetary responsibilities,” Gilliss said. “To have a person who is dedicated to the board to assist in budget review is an important element in ensuring that we do the best work that we can.”

Kamenetz said he’ll discuss the idea of expanding the auditor’s office with council members before making a final decision.

Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat and ally of Kamenetz, said he supports the concept of expanding the county auditor’s office.

Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, also said he supports the idea.

“I think that would be a very good reform for [Kamenetz] to make,” Marks said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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