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County schools audit: What's the excuse for opposing Verletta White now?

When you think back about all the wrangling over an independent audit of Baltimore County Public Schools finances — the finger-pointing, the insinuations, the expectation of more Dallas Dance-like criminal behavior (particularly in regard to education technology spending) and even the school board’s many weeks of resistance to sharing the auditor’s initial findings with each other let alone the public — the report released Wednesday must seem like the biggest letdown since “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” It would be factually incorrect to say BCPS and interim Superintendent Verletta White emerged wholly unscathed by this exercise in accountability, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth.

Baltimore County residents ought to take a few minutes to at least skim through the 281 pages posted online — assuming, of course, that they have the stamina to explore such intriguing subject matter as exactly who should sign off in advance on purchase orders, how to best to track credit card transactions or how often procurement procedures should be reviewed (once every five years, apparently) — to reassure themselves that BCPS finances are not the mess that critics claimed. There are legitimate criticisms here, as government audits typically produce, but nothing especially noteworthy and none that should cause anyone to be fired or demoted let alone criminally investigated beyond Dallas Dance, who pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury last March in Baltimore County Circuit Court related to $147,000 in outside income, and who has already served his time in a Virginia jail.

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The irony, of course, is that one of the strongest criticisms in the document relates to the persistent tardiness with which school board members have filed their own financial disclosure forms. One out of five to serve on the Baltimore County Board of Education simply could not file those pesky forms in a timely manner — compared to a 7 percent tardiness rate by senior staff. And who are these offenders? They include the current chair and vice chair, Kathleen S. Causey and Julie C. Henn, two of the most strident critics of interim Superintendent Verletta White who, incidentally, had one year (2016) when her filing was late as well.

Filing a financial disclosure form late is probably not the end of the world — at least if it’s not a persistent problem or one that masks a bigger issue like outside income from a school system vendor — but one hopes that the BCPS can run a tighter ship. The more troubling ramification here is this: State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon last year took the highly unusual step of refusing to accept Ms. White as permanent superintendent in Baltimore County for two reasons — for an ethics violation (as Ms. White failed to disclose certain consulting income but, as we’ve detailed many times before, not anywhere near on the scale or manner in which Mr. Dance did) and because the financial audit had not been completed. Now that the audit has failed to produce whatever smoking gun Ms. Salmon might have been expecting, will the board’s current leadership, which seems to made some false assumptions about Ms. White, now take her bid to be superintendent more seriously or are they stuck in full opposition mode?

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The board is welcome to approve whomever they want for the school system’s top job. Perhaps they’ll find a more qualified candidate. Surely, they are not bound by the last school board’s 8-4 vote in favor of Ms. White. But what they can no longer do is continue their campaign to discredit Ms. White as some Dance co-conspirator presiding over a corrupt enterprise. The audit simply doesn’t show it — at least not what’s been uncovered so far. Still, the ho-hum document does help explain why certain board members were so reluctant to share it. Whether a disclosure of early audit returns is standard procedure or not, it’s pretty clear that some members weren’t interested in Ms. White getting a clean financial bill of health before the superintendent search wraps up.

Make no mistake, the audit has been a worthwhile enterprise. It should give school system stakeholders some peace of mind. But what does it mean for members of the school board who seem to like their meetings contentious, disrespectful to senior staff and generally mean-spirited? Regrettably, probably not much.

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