Two bills that would have given Baltimore County more oversight over the school system are dead in the Maryland General Assembly.
One would have given the county’s inspector general the authority to investigate fraud, waste and abuse in the school system. The other would have allowed the county to attach strings to some of the money it sends to the schools.
Democratic Del. Eric Ebersole, whose district includes Catonsville and Arbutus, said he withdrew his legislation to expand the inspector general’s authority, because other members of the county’s House delegation raised questions.
“How deep the oversight should go, should it just be for the board or for the administration,” Ebersole said. “And there was some talk in delegation about subpoena power and I really wasn’t into that. I felt like it wasn’t quite ready for prime time yet.”
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski had proposed giving Inspector General Kelly Madigan additional oversight over the schools as part of his effort to make government more transparent and accountable.
The county spends nearly $2 billion on the school system each year.
There was criticism that the additional oversight would have been overkill.
At a meeting of the Baltimore County State Senate delegation earlier this month, Sen. Charles Sydnor questioned whether it would be duplicating effort. He listed safeguards already in place.
Sydnor, a Democrat whose district includes the Lochearn area of the county, said, “There’s a financial audit, a financial statement audit, a legislative audit, an IRS benefits audit, procurement audit, MSDE capital project audit.”
The state also has an inspector general, Richard Henry, who oversees all of Maryland’s 24 local school systems. But he is doing that with a staff of only six. In an interview before Ebersole decided to withdraw the bill, Henry said he was not taking a position on the legislation but added overlapping duties with Madigan in Baltimore County would help his cause.
“Because this is a very important role,” Henry said. “Education is critical. If we don’t peel back this onion and start holding people accountable, what are we going to do? What are we doing to society or the community as a whole?
Ebersole said he may reintroduce the legislation at a future session once the details get ironed out.
“There’s no hurry on this,” Ebersole said. “There’s nothing going on at the board, no one feeling like right now we have to add oversight to what’s going on with them.”
Henry and Madigan currently have an agreement in which they will work together on investigations of financial fraud in the county schools. Ebersole’s legislation would have allowed Madigan to independently launch her own investigations.
The reason she cannot do that now is that local school systems are state agencies. It’s been that way in Maryland public education since 1867, according to John Willis, a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.
“They created a bifurcated system where there was responsibility at the county level and responsibility at the state level,” Willis said. “But the structure of the school board and the structure of the system is still essentially state.”
That can create tension because the local government has little fiscal control over the money it is providing the school system.
Mistrust of the county schools was fueled by the conviction of former school superintendent Dallas Dance nearly three years ago for lying about outside income.
More recently, county officials have been complaining that School Superintendent Darryl Williams is stonewalling them over the ongoing cost and details of November’s ransomware attack.
Sen. Chris West, a Republican who represents the Towson and Timonium areas, introduced a bill that would have allowed the county executive and county council to put conditions on some of the money they give the schools. He did that after a meeting weeks ago between Williams and the county Senate delegation in which West said the superintendent refused to answer their questions.
“It just seems to me unacceptable that any organization gets $2 billion a year of taxpayer money and doesn’t feel like it has to account for how it spends it or what it does,” West said.
Now, West said he will withdraw his bill because Williams said he will meet again with the senators. He added he will keep the legislation on file just in case.
“If we continue to have experiences like the one we had several weeks ago, I would intend to reintroduce the bill next year,” West said.
Williams has stated that he cannot go into details about the ransomware attack because of the ongoing criminal investigation.