The Anne Arundel County school system is racing against the clock to vet employees before the start of school after an auditor's report indicated that hundreds in the system may not have been screened for criminal activity.

The report, released last week, found that 12 percent of personnel files contained no evidence of a completed background check, based on a statistical sampling of folders for nearly 7,000 employees hired in the 19 years since Maryland began requiring the screening. From the sampling, it's likely that 700 to 800 employee folders contain no proof of a background check.

Although the audit looks far beyond background checks into questionable hiring and payroll practices, Superintendent Eric J. Smith has made background checks a top priority in responding to the auditor's findings because they are a matter of student safety.

According to top aides to Smith, between now and the start of classes Aug. 29, human resources staff need to verify that every employee hired since October 1986 has submitted to a background check, even if this means sifting through files by hand. Those who haven't been fingerprinted will be ordered to do so immediately.

Smith has employed one temporary clerk and "will hire whomever he has to hire to have [the checks] complete by the start of the school year," said Bob Leib, the superintendent's chief of staff.

The 47-page internal audit of the school system's human resources department has derailed relations between the superintendent and members of the school board. The eight-member panel called a special meeting Thursday to evaluate Smith's performance. Board members would not discuss what was said in the closed session.

Most of the auditor's 23 findings concern unorthodox pay raises and bonuses, matters of vital interest to the school board but somewhat removed from the classroom.

The first finding, however, and perhaps the one most likely to resonate among parents, deals with background checks. State law requires school systems to screen prospective employees for such offenses as murder, child abuse, rape and child pornography.

Auditor Walter Federowicz randomly selected 112 employees from the Anne Arundel schools workforce of 9,044 to look for background checks. The sample included 86 workers hired since Oct. 1, 1986, when the state law was implemented. Of the 86, Federowicz found 10 who "had not yet initiated the process to apply for a background check," based on the evidence in their personnel files.

When Federowicz conducted another sampling of folders for workers hired between November 2002 and October 2004, he found that 29 percent held no evidence of a completed background check.

The key question, according to school system leaders and parents, is whether the lack of documentation means the employees were not screened for criminal conduct.

"The first question I want to know is, where are those background checks?" said Debbie Ritchie, countywide PTA president. "If they're not in the folder, are they in the background check office? Or have they truly not been done? I'd be worried if they weren't done at all."

Human resources employees have reviewed records for every employee hired in the 2003-04 academic year, matching their names against an in-house fingerprint database. Of 1,815 workers, 29 -- less than 2 percent -- were identified as lacking background checks, according to Florie Bozzella, director of human resources. Seventeen workers have yet to be fingerprinted.

Employees hired in 2004-05 are now being checked against the same database, Bozzella said. All other workers hired since fall 1986 will be cross-referenced against the internal database, and then against a database maintained by law enforcement. Anyone not appearing in either database will be ordered to do a check immediately, she said.

"I think we're probably going to find out that many of the employees that we don't have evidence of their fingerprints in their file, we did have them fingerprinted," said Synthia Shilling, an assistant superintendent who oversees personnel.

Federowicz's audit also found many cases of employees who weren't screened until after they reported for work, according to their files.