County Council Turns to Attorney General in Dispute With Board
Thursday, June 29, 2006
The Montgomery County Council has fired back in the battle over whether Inspector General Thomas Dagley has the right to investigate county school system operations.
The disagreement between the council and the school board over the inspector general's authority was prompted by Dagley's report in February on the Seven Locks Elementary School site in Potomac. In his report, Dagley questioned whether the school system's decision to build an elementary school on Kendale Road, rather than adding space to the current Seven Locks site, was the most financially responsible choice. The report also accused the school system of misrepresenting community support for the Kendale Road plan.
As a result of Dagley's report, plans to build on Kendale Road were temporarily shelved while both bodies looked into the matter. After a series of public hearings, the Kendale Road plan was abandoned and a new one -- to add capacity to two elementary schools, Bells Mills and Seven Locks -- was adopted.
In a 10-page letter to the state attorney general, senior legislative attorney Michael E. Faden outlined legal arguments in support of the council's position that the school system, like other county agencies, is subject to scrutiny, noting that "MCPS did not object to previous exercises of the Inspector General's authority to examine its operations. Only when one of the Inspector General's reports became too critical -- cut too close to the bone, as it were -- did MCPS summon its lawyers to repel this trespasser."
But some school board members argue that Dagley's audit was not like previous investigations because the process was adversarial, not cooperative. They also said that although Dagley called his work a financial audit, the final product did not match the state education code's definition of one. School system officials maintain that the inspector general's investigative authority does not apply to their operations because they are a state, not county, agency and therefore not subject to the local legislation that authorizes the inspector general to conduct audits.
Faden argues in his letter that the inspector general's work does not interfere with school system operations or the school board's ability to do its work. The issue, he says, is accountability. School system operations are the single largest expenditure in the county budget, and Faden argues that the council and the public have a right to know where the money goes.
"MCPS is not immune from public and Council scrutiny,'' Faden wrote. "As its reaction to the report may indicate, the Board of Education might prefer less outside scrutiny from the Council or anyone else. But the Board's preference does not define the larger public interest. The applicable State law should not be construed to restrict, rather than enhance, public scrutiny of large school systems' finances and operations."
It is now up to the attorney general to make a final determination in the matter.
With school board elections set for this fall, it seems that Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is thinking about his future. With his four-year contract set to expire in March, there's chatter that the schools chief is pushing current school board members to make a strong statement of support as he undergoes his yearly evaluation process.
But he won't be able to secure a new contract prior to the election, which will usher in at least two new faces -- incumbents Charles Haughey (At Large) and Gabe Romero (Gaithersburg) are not running for reelection. Maryland law prohibits school boards from officially entering into contracts until Feb. 1 of the year in which a contract expires.
However, there is precedent for early board action when it comes to Weast. In July 2001, the school board announced its intention to renew Weast's contract even though it did not expire until 2003 (there was a school board election in 2002). Board members said the action was necessary to prevent other school systems from wooing Weast away.
Still, Weast dismissed such talk when questioned after Monday night's board meeting.