Howard school board chairwoman apologizes
O’Connor regrets ‘tone’ of critique of state auditors
Howard County school board Chairwoman Christine O’Connor has apologized for her scathing critique of a state audit that questioned the Howard County public school system’s financial practices.
“We sincerely apologize for the tone of the letter,” O’Connor wrote to the Office of Legislative Audits. “We agree that it is important to nowfocus on the content of the report and the steps necessary to address your audit findings and recommendations.”
State auditors who examined the school system reported last month that limited financial controls led to the approval of millions of dollars in salaries, mileage expenses and construction projects without proper authorization or procurement. Auditors have raised similar concerns in other county school systems.
In an initial written response to the report, O’Connor questioned the auditors’ motives, saying they “appeared to not understand Maryland law” and that they “stubbornly resisted acknowledging the sound business practices” used by the school system.
Thomas Barnickel III, the office’s legislative auditor, had defended the work. He said the school system could have been more cooperative with the state’s auditors — a concern also raised by Howard County government auditors, who are conducting a separate audit of the system’s finances.
“To a great extent,” the state auditors wrote, “the alleged excessive personnel costs to assist during the audit could have been avoided with better cooperation.”
School officials met with state auditors this month to discuss the findings. Then O’Connor sent her letter of apology.
County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who initiated the call for the county’s audit, welcomed the change in tone.
“Having fought hard to ensure the county auditors are treated with respect and allowed to do their job, I am hopeful this new approach continues,” Ball said in a statement.
Kirsten Coombs, one of three newcomers elected to the board this month, also embraced O’Connor’s apology.
“At the end of the day, we should make sure we have partnerships at state and county levels that are focused on doing the right things for students,” Coombs said.
The auditors, who reviewed data from mid-2013 through 2015, found that senior school officials awarded $12.6 million in no-bid contracts, suggesting that those contracts might not have gone to the most qualified vendors at the best value.
They said the system did not select construction management firms by competitive bids, as required by state law. The audit indicates that in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, the system entered into a dozen no-bid contracts worth $9.3 million with five construction management firms.
School policy allows officials to award single-source contracts if it is impractical to seek competitive bids. The county school board approved contracts, auditors said, but managers failed to explain why they did not seek competitive bids.
The school system has implemented all 31 of the audit’s recommendations related to technology improvements and welcomed future collaboration, O’Connor wrote.
“We appreciate the recommendations provided through external and internal audits and are committed to implementing best practices in order to meet our goal of continuous improvement,” she wrote.
Del. Frank Turner has asked the school board to provide an update on the school system’s compliance with the state auditor’s recommendations every four months.