© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Baltimore County school auditor testifies ‘my head was in a guillotine’

John Lee

The Baltimore County Public Schools’ embattled chief auditor testified in court Wednesday that school board members orchestrated her firing because she would not bend to their will.

Andrea Barr filed a lawsuit against the school board in recent weeks and has since filed a complaint with the state inspector general about retaliation.

In Baltimore County Circuit Court she recounted to Judge Sherrie Bailey behind the scenes threats and intimidation she allegedly received from board members Kathleen Causey and Russ Kuehn.

“They were asking me to do things that were unethical and improper,” Barr testified. “It always felt like my head was in a guillotine.”

During a conference call in 2019, board member Kuehn screamed at her, saying her job was in jeopardy, she said.

The dispute was about her working relationship with a firm, UHY, which was conducting an external audit of the school system. Barr was serving as a liaison between the board and the company.

Barr claimed Kuehn and Causey wanted her to put pressure on the external auditors not to include information about board members’ financial disclosure forms. She said she refused to do so.

Barr named two board members, Causey, who at the time was the board chair, and Julie Henn, the current chair, who had not properly filed their disclosure forms.

On May 17, the school board voted on renewing Barr’s annual contract. Six of the 11 members present voted to renew it. The remaining five, including Causey, Kuehn and Henn, either abstained or recused themselves. Traditionally, it has taken seven “yes” votes to approve a motion so Barr’s contract was terminated.

Craig Meuser, the attorney for the school board, challenged Barr’s allegation of retaliation, saying there was no evidence to support it, and that Kuehn denied he had threatened her with termination.

During cross examination, Meuser asked Barr, “Were you terminated in 2019?” Barr answered “no.”

He repeated his question about the past two years and she responded the same way.

Meuser also noted that two board members who either abstained or recused from voting, Lisa Mack and Lilly Rowe, were not part of Barr’s complaint.

Meuser pointed out that Barr’s contract clearly states that she serves at the pleasure of the board.

Meuser chalked up the actions of board members as zealousness about financial issues stemming from fear. In 2018, former Baltimore County school superintendent Dallas Dance was convicted of perjury and served four months in jail. Dance did not report $147,000 he made as a consultant while he was school superintendent.

Barr’s attorney, Kathleen Cahill, said her client’s opponents saw they had the opportunity this year to spring “a gadget play to end Ms. Barr’s employment.”

In May, there was a vacancy on the 12 member board. Cheryl Pasteur, who said she would have supplied the seventh vote Barr needed for her contract renewal, had stepped down to run for the Maryland House of Delegates.

Cahill told the judge the vote in mid-May “didn’t drop out of nowhere. This is a scheme.”

Barr’s case may hinge on whether she needed seven votes or just a majority of the 11 board members who were present on May 17.

Michael Swift, who has been a professional registered parliamentarian for more than 20 years, told the court the six yes votes out of 11 present board members were enough to renew Barr’s contract, based on Robert’s Rules of Order, which the school board follows.

“In Robert’s it says a majority is more than half,” Swift said.

Meuser, the attorney for the board, cited a February 2020 advisory opinion by the Maryland State Board of Education. It states the board does need at least seven votes to pass a motion. That opinion was sought after the school board in December 2019 voted 6-5 to replace Causey as board chair with Cheryl Pasteur. But since Pasteur did not get seven votes, Causey remained the chair.

But Swift challenged the state board’s conclusion, saying the “seven” threshold is in a school board handbook, but not any of its governing documents.

Present and former school board members testified that Barr has had an exemplary record as chief auditor. She has held that position for nearly 10 years.

David Uhlfelder, who served on the school board for a decade ending in 2018 and served as chair of its audit committee, called Barr a “superstar.”

“She is tremendously professional,” Uhlfelder told the judge.

Moalie Jose, who currently serves on the school board, was subpoenaed to testify. Jose said she was concerned about retaliation for testifying “just from past experiences of what I have witnessed on the board.”

Jose said she has found Barr to be “very ethical and professional.”

Richard Henry, Maryland’s Inspector General for Education, said he has worked with Barr on at least five investigations involving the county school system.

“Ms. Barr was a true professional,” Henry said.

It was revealed in court that Barr has filed with the state inspector general a complaint of retaliation.

On Thursday, Judge Bailey will hear closing arguments.

A temporary restraining order remains in effect through Thursday. The judge has the option to extend it if she sees fit. The order means Barr remains employed, even though her contract expired June 30.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
Related Content