Disagreement is rare between Anne Arundel school Superintendent Eric J. Smith and the school board that hired him. Board members seldom question his decisions, at least not in public, and meetings at the Riva Road headquarters are about as explosive as a typical C-SPAN broadcast.
So the public outbursts against Smith by several board members in the past week may signal a major rift. The source of their ire: an audit, released last week, that found evidence of improper pay raises and signing bonuses awarded to top staff members, as well as lapses in crucial background checks on new hires.
Board members say they're shocked at the findings. Perhaps more important, they're upset at Smith. Why, board members ask, did they have no prior warning of the auditor's report that appeared on their desks in mid-July? For how long, they wonder, did the superintendent know of the financial irregularities and not tell them -- and are there other things he's holding back?
"Dr. Smith does not communicate with any of the board members on any kind of regular basis," said Ned Carey, who, having just ended a term as board president, spoke to Smith as much as anyone on the eight-person panel in the past year.
"We don't know what the plan is. He's never shared the plan with us. We only get bits and pieces of the plan. And he only seems to talk to me when he's in hot water. That's not how a CEO handles a business."
Carey and other board members say Smith's handling of the audit bombshell repeats a familiar pattern. Since his arrival in Anne Arundel three years ago, board members say, they have asked Smith repeatedly to be more communicative. Board members say he rarely seeks their advice or shares his plans, preferring to work with his staff and bring them finished products for their approval.
In return for his freedom, Smith says, board members are free to hold him accountable for results.
"When I was hired here, there was no surprise about my style," Smith said. "There's a million decisions that are made over the course of the week, and I believe that the superintendent, if they're to be effective and accomplish what the board wants them to accomplish, needs to make calls."
Smith's relationship with both the school board and the staff is somewhat formal. He generally lets aides place his telephone calls. He is seldom seen without a tie. He is not the sort of school administrator one might expect to don a chicken costume or sit in a dunking tank.
"I'm trying to think of whether we've done anything with him in an informal setting," said board member Eugene Peterson, who enjoys a fairly strong rapport with Smith and speaks to him often by telephone.
Peterson said he once suggested that Smith host a barbecue at the administration building as a way to bond with the staff. Smith said it sounded like a good idea. When he heard nothing and brought it up again, Peterson recalled, Smith told him, "The more I talked about it, the more it became like an assignment, and so we dropped it."
"I've talked to him personally about the need to communicate with school board members," Peterson said, "and for some reason, his management style doesn't lead to that kind of activity. He tries to charge off on his own, and I guess it's his show."
Perhaps because Smith tends not to share the inner workings of his operation with the board, members now wonder whether he kept the audit findings to himself for weeks or months before they were presented with the final document.
Smith said he first saw the audit report a week before it was delivered to the board. He said he purposely avoided asking his staff or the school board auditor, Walter Federowicz, to discuss the work in progress, so as not to appear to steer the results. He said a subordinate approached him about a month ago with just one of the auditor's findings, concerning lapses in background checks, because she felt it required immediate action.
"I just kind of forget about it, and let Walter do his thing," said Smith, who, along with the board, has requested about a half-dozen audits from Federowicz, most of them yielding comparatively unremarkable findings. "I don't ask staff where he's going or what he's asking. I think it would be wrong of me to interfere in that process."
Some school board members say Smith must have known what was coming, considering that he typically keeps in constant contact with his top staff, and that staffers were asked to respond in writing to many of the auditor's findings.
"For him to say that he didn't see it all along, I find that hard to believe," Carey said.
Many lingering questions focus on one of the 23 specific findings in the 47-page audit. The audit revealed that a series of payments totaling $21,000 were made to four top executives hired in 2003 and 2004, all of them made on or before the day the employees reported to work.
The four new hires were paid for consulting or "pre-employment activities" out of an unrestricted payroll account, according to Peterson, who said he has researched the payments and considers them highly improper. Smith contends the payments don't violate school board policy.
In essence, Peterson said, the executives were promised compensation before the board had approved their hire.
"I'm still trying to find out how you pay a person money before they're employed," he said. "Because until we say they're employed, they're not employees. . . . What if we didn't vote to approve all these people? What would we do then?"