Howard school board chair­woman apol­o­gizes

O’Con­nor re­grets ‘tone’ of cri­tique of state au­di­tors

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Fa­timah Waseem

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.

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