The Maryland State Department of Education is investigating whether the Calvert County school system misrepresented the status of contract negotiations with a support staff union when it asked the state to declare the talks at impasse.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick declared the impasse Sept. 10, initiating a formal process that calls for impartial arbitrators to resolve the conflict.

But union officials said she made her decision based on a letter by Calvert Superintendent J. Kenneth Horsmon that "fraudulently" misrepresented the status of talks.

The union said it did not recognize the declaration of impasse and asked Grasmick to reverse it.

Last Friday, Grasmick asked Horsmon to respond to the union's allegations.

"After I have received and reviewed your response, I will determine the next steps in the process," she wrote in a letter to him.

Horsmon said he replied to Grasmick early this week, and he rejected the union's allegation that he had mischaracterized the talks.

"We are still asking her to affirm her declaration of impasse," he said. "We are anxious to move on with the process."

Grasmick's reconsideration of the status of the talks is the latest twist in the increasingly antagonistic dispute between the Calvert school board and the two unions that represent teachers and support staff.

Negotiations for a new contract with the teachers union were declared at impasse July 8. This month, the teachers began a "work-to-rule" protest, refusing to work more than the 7.5 hours a day required by their contracts.

Some support staff members are also picketing in front of schools to protest the stalled contract talks.

The main sticking points in negotiations with support staff members center on salary increases and union representation when staff members face disciplinary investigations.

During the final negotiating meeting before the impasse was declared, the union and school board were unable to reach an agreement on union representation. Because of the stalemate on that issue, negotiators for the school board decided not to discuss salary increases or make a new offer.

School officials said they feared any final salary counterproposal made at that meeting would be used as a starting point for negotiations during impasse proceedings.

"This was a strategic decision by the board's negotiating team," Horsmon. "Were they authorized to make some movement? Yes, they were. But we never got past the representation piece."

But union officials said Horsmon incorrectly told Grasmick that the board had made a salary counteroffer. They cite a sentence from Horsmon's Sept. 2 letter to Grasmick: "Our Board of Education determined that additional money could be used to fund our contract."

"His statement clearly indicates that they were going to make a salary proposal," said Joe Sella, chief negotiator for the union. "But we never even had a chance to look at it."

Horsmon denied any misrepresentation, saying his letter did not claim a counterproposal had actually been made.

Grasmick has yet to decide on a time frame for the investigation or how she might proceed once it is concluded, according to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Board of Education.

"We're still looking into this and considering all our options," he said.