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Release the Baltimore County Public School audit

On Jan. 18, the Baltimore County Board of Education received its copy of a draft independent audit that closely examined the school system’s finances, including its technology investments. Given the fate of the last Baltimore County Public Schools’ superintendent — Dallas Dance was convicted one year ago on four counts of perjury stemming from his failure to disclose outside income, some of it related to the education-technology industry — it’s safe to assume the public’s interest in this report (and lingering lack of confidence in BCPS leadership) is running fairly high. So why hasn’t one scintilla of this document been released to the public, not an executive summary, not a heavily-redacted version, not so much as a one-sentence 5th grade book report?

Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. said this week that this lack of transparency is a problem. We agree. And what’s making matters worse is that Kathleen Causey, the school board’s chair, has yet to offer a single valid reason for sitting on the document for nearly two months now — not even adequately explaining her reluctance to share it with all board members. Even if it had some egregious error, why not discuss it behind closed doors? It’s a little hard to believe that this is the same person who, as a member often out-voted by the majority under the last board, was so critical of Mr. Dance and quick to call for greater accountability within BCPS. What happened to that Kathleen Causey?

Here’s one possibility: It’s not that the audit is excessively critical but that perhaps she, and her supporters on the board, believe it isn’t critical enough of Interim Superintendent Verletta White, whom they want so desperately to replace. Ms. Causey’s antipathy toward Ms. White was evident long before State Superintendent Karen Salmon took the extraordinary step of blocking Ms. White’s appointment as superintendent last year. At the time, Ms. Salmon explained her action by observing that the audit was not yet complete. But what if it finds little or no fault with Ms. White’s actions beyond her already well-chronicled failure to report outside income (about which she was far more forthcoming and the lapse much more modest than was the case with her predecessor) on financial disclosure forms?

Considering the current board has already hired a search firm to recruit the system’s next superintendent and wants to have that person in place by this summer, it’s entirely possible that sitting on audit results is a way to suppress Ms. White’s candidacy. It certainly leaves a lingering cloud over the interim superintendent’s head — a presumption of guilt that could easily be dispelled by releasing the draft audit, or, conversely, should the audit be critical of Ms. White, might once and for all set the record straight and lead to an overdue dismissal.

In either case, the excessive secrecy surrounding this audit is ludicrous. This is no time to hide behind the audit’s draft status. Mr. Olszewski wants it released. Ms. White supports its release. And we suspect Baltimore County voters would support its release by an overwhelming margin if given a chance to share their thoughts. To use a phrase often attributed to Justice Louis Brandeis and commonly used by the press to promote the release of government documents: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Were Ms. Causey and her allies still on the outside looking in, we’re confident she would be spearheading the drive to have the audit results shared with the public, preliminary or not. It’s bad enough that the county must soon finalize a school budget without knowing the audit results, but it would be far worse for the superintendent recruitment process to go forward without such public disclosure. Wasn’t the audit all about restoring public confidence in the school system?

One final point. Interim Superintendent White gets high marks in some quarters of the school system. She’s a homegrown talent who attended county schools, worked up the ranks at BCPS and sent her own children to county schools. And she gives the system much-needed credibility in the critical area of closing the learning gap so that students from low-income households, including many minorities, don’t get left behind. But that doesn’t mean she should be held immune to criticism, and she well may not be the right choice to lead county schools. What’s needed right now are the facts. And while the board may have the authority to withhold a draft audit from public view, that doesn’t make it appropriate behavior in a county starved for independent, verifiable information about its school system’s internal machinations.

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