Howard schools’ spend­ing faulted

State au­dit crit­i­cizes ap­proval of no-bid con­tracts and lack of con­trols

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Fa­timah Waseem

A state au­dit of Howard County pub­lic schools says the sys­tem ap­proved mil­lions of dol­lars in salary in­creases, mileage ex­penses and con­struc­tion projects with­out proper doc­u­men­ta­tion or pro­ce­dures.

The au­dit, re­leased Fri­day by the Mary­land Of­fice of Leg­isla­tive Au­dits, was con­ducted as part of a state process that re­views all 24 pub­lic school sys­tems at least once ev­ery six years.

The au­dit re­viewed data from mid-2013 through 2015, and found school of­fi­cials awarded $12.6 mil­lion in no-bid con­tracts for var­i­ous goods and ser­vices, sug­gest­ing they might not have gone to the most qual­i­fied ven­dors at the best value.

The au­dit also said the sys­tem en­tered into a dozen no-bid con­tracts with con­struc­tion man­age­ment firms worth an­other $9.3 mil­lion in fis­cal years 2013 and 2014.

School pol­icy al­lows sin­gle-source con­tracts if it is im­prac­ti­cal to seek com­pet­i­tive bids, but man­agers failed to show why they did not seek com­pet­i­tive bids, ac­cord­ing to the au­dit.

“If you’re a stew­ard of pub­lic funds, you want to make sure the pro­cure­ment process al­lows all ven­dors to openly par­tic­i­pate so you can get the best price pos­si­ble,” said Thomas Bar­nickel III, the state’s leg­isla­tive au­di­tor.

The au­dit also said the sys­tem awarded $15.3 mil­lion in salary in­creases for ad­min­is­tra­tive staff in 2014 with­out county school board ap­proval, as re­quired by state law.

The sys­tem’s in­ter­nal au­di­tor, David Clark, dis­puted that claim, say­ing the board did ap­prove the raises. But he said state au­di­tors were un­sat­is­fied with a school sys­tem process that grants raises as part of a salary scale set up years ago.

In an­other find­ing, the au­dit said ex­ec­u­tive em­ploy­ees re­ceived monthly mileage pay­ments of about $208,000 in fis­cal years 2014 and 2015 with­out board ap­proval and with­out doc­u­ment­ing mileage trav­eled.

Clark said the sys­tem uses a flat stipend to cover mileage, a process that does not re­quire board ap­proval.

He also dis­puted crit­i­cism of no-bid con­tracts, say­ing it was “un­bal­anced” for au­di­tors not to men­tion that 97 per­cent of con­tracts were com­pet­i­tively bid.

“We want the au­dit. It can pro­vide a value. But we want it to be done well,” he said.

The re­port warned that the sys­tem’s com­puter network might be vul­ner­a­ble to out­side at­tack, and made rec­om­men­da­tions to se­cure it. Clark called those find­ings “well-rea­soned,” and said a new man­age­ment sys­tem im­ple­mented ear­lier this year is ad­dress­ing those con­cerns.

Bar­nickel said the prob­lems found in Howard County are not un­com­mon. He said other school sys­tems have sim­i­lar is­sues, though his of­fice was es­pe­cially con­cerned about Howard’s re­liance on no-bid con­tracts.

Howard County Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Renee Foose did not com­ment di­rectly on the au­dit find­ings, but county school board Chair­woman Christine O’Con­nor was crit­i­cal, call­ing the au­dit a “dis­ser­vice” and ques­tion­ing au­di­tors’ ex­pe­ri­ence and un­der­stand­ing. State elected of­fi­cials dis­agreed. Del. Frank Turner, a Demo­crat who rep­re­sents part of the county, said school of­fi­cials should “lis­ten to these rec­om­men­da­tions and take the steps nec­es­sary to im­prove.”

And Del. War­ren Miller, a Repub­li­can who also rep­re­sents a po­tion of the county, said, “It just seems like [the school sys­tem] has been caught do­ing some­thing they shouldn’t have been do­ing, and we have to be the adults and step in and fix this prob­lem.”

Specif­i­cally, Miller said he will con­sider leg­is­la­tion to halt no-bid con­tracts in the sys­tem.

The sys­tem came un­der bud­get scru­tiny this year when the County Coun­cil and County Ex­ec­u­tive Al­lan Kit­tle­man re­fused to fully fund its record-high re­quest of $856 mil­lion. In­stead, the sys­tem re­ceived $808 mil­lion.

The bud­get de­bate spurred the coun­cil to call for its own fi­nan­cial au­dit of the sys­tem, a re­view that is on­go­ing.

Ad­di­tion­ally, a state om­buds­man is ex­pected to re­lease by Jan­uary a re­view of the sys­tem’s han­dling of pub­lic in­for­ma­tion re­quests. In April, the state Se­nate called for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter par­ents com­plained school of­fi­cials were not re­spond­ing to in­for­ma­tion re­quests.

Del. Vanessa At­ter­beary, a county Demo­crat, said the au­dit re­flects con­cerns about trans­parency.

“It all goes back to whether the peo­ple we have en­trusted our chil­dren with are do­ing the best job that they can. Are they be­ing trans­par­ent? Are they be­ing truth­ful? This au­dit calls all of that into ques­tion,” she said.

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