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Report: Baltimore County School Board broke state law, fudged purchasing rules

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BALTIMORE COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
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A report by Maryland’s State Inspector General for Education finds that the Baltimore County School Board violated state law when it hired outside legal counsel. It also rang up tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills and did so by breaking the rules on how it’s to spend money.

State law requires that the board use the county attorney for legal counsel unless it’s in a dispute with county government. It can also ask the county attorney for permission to hire an outside firm.

In January 2019, the school board hired the Columbia-based law firm Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scheer to help with the search for a new superintendent. Inspector General Richard Henry said the board received permission to do that. But once that search was over, the school board violated state law by keeping the firm on as its legal counsel and the billable hours started adding up.

“It exceeded over $100,000,” Henry said.

In a prepared statement, Kathleen Causey, who was the board chair at the time, said as a board member she has sought to follow all laws, rules and policies.

“As chair of the board I sought and followed legal advice in fulfillment of those responsibilities,” Causey said in her statement.

Furthermore, Inspector General Henry said the board broke its own spending rules by dividing up the cost of the legal services. Anything that costs $50,000 or more must be put out for a competitive bid. Henry said the board skirted that by submitting a purchase order for $49,999.

“The school board was artificially dividing the order so that they did not have to follow the small procurement law and actually advertise for legal services,” Henry said.

Julie Henn became the school board chair last month and was vice chair the last several years. She said the $49,999 was an emergency procurement because the contract with the firm had expired.

Henn said she is taking seriously the recommendations from Inspector General Henry that the school board follow state and county laws and guidelines regarding spending.

“We are highly sensitive towards any suggestion of impropriety in terms of our own procurement,” Henn said. “So, we will be dotting our “I’s” and crossing our T’s on every recommendation that the IG has made, without a doubt.”

Henry said for the past three years the school board exceeded the amount it had budgeted for legal services. In fiscal year 2019 it ran over by more than $63,000, although the report points out that’s at least partly due to the cost of finding a new superintendent. But it also ran over in 2020 by more than $9,000 and so far for the fiscal year that ends June 30 by more than $64,000.

Besides the law firm the school board hired in 2019, it had additional legal counsel. The board had been paying another firm since 2008 to be its primary attorney. For a while, Henry said the school board had two law firms.

“At the conclusion of the superintendent’s search, they continued to retain that particular firm as a support firm to their counsel that they had at the time,” Henry said. “So, they were basically running almost a parallel, having two law firms at the same time.”

In July 2020 the board voted not to renew its contract with its long-time attorney and kept the new firm on although it charged more per hour. One reason the report gives for escalating legal costs is that the school board has an attorney present during its legendarily long meetings, known to go five hours or more.

Inspector General Henry said he has asked the school system to give him a written response to the report by January 31.

Board chairwoman Henn said she is looking forward to getting feedback from Henry on whether their response is adequate.

“This is a board that wants to get it right,” Henn said.

Meantime, the Maryland General Assembly, which convenes Wednesday, will consider legislation sponsored by Baltimore Democratic Senator Charles Sydnor III that would allow the Baltimore County School Board to hire its own legal counsel. It is the only local school board in the state that must ask for permission to do that.

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