The Baltimore County school board violated state law by hiring outside counsel in 2019 to assist with the search for a new superintendent, the state’s inspector general for education found in recently released report.
The school board said in a response filed this week that it agreed with the inspector general’s report but pushed back on some of the report’s reasoning.
The board’s attorney, Eric C. Brousaides, acknowledged in the response that the Education Article of Maryland Code cited by the inspector general “is applicable.” The statute says the Baltimore County board can only retain a private attorney if there is a conflict with the county. It is the only local school board in the state that must ask for permission to do that.
However, Brousaides argues that other legal constraints cited in the report, including the county charter, do not apply to the board. He said that the charter refers to “the department of education” as a department within county government.
“Accordingly, because the Board is not a part of the county government, the references to the County Charter and the County Code as limiting the Board’s ability to retain its own counsel appear inapplicable,” Brousaides wrote. “While in one sense this is somewhat of an academic point given the applicability of §4-104 of the Education Article, it is also an important point to keep in mind when delineating the scope of the County’s authority.”
The county school board hired the Columbia-based law firm Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scherr in January 2019 to help with its search for a new superintendent. The board initially had permission to hire outside counsel, according to the report released in December by Maryland’s State Inspector General for Education, but erred, violating state law, when it kept the firm on as its attorney after the search ended.
The legal fees exceeded more than $100,000, the report said, and the board broke spending rules by dividing up the costs and submitting a purchase order for $49,999. Anything that costs $50,000 or more must be put out for a competitive bid.
The board also had additional attorneys, aside from the firm hired in 2019. According to the report, it had been paying another firm to be its primary attorney since 2008.
“During the interview process, [school board] members expressed frustration in their lack of knowledge of the State and county laws governing the procurement process,” the report said. “Members advised the [Office of the Inspector General for Education] they were not aware of any clear policy of how legal services were to be contacted or utilized.”
Current board chair Julie Henn, who was then-vice chair, along with then-board chair Kathleen Causey and Makeda Scott were all named in the report along with other members of the board.
Henn said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that she believes the response to the investigation satisfied the concerns of the inspector general.
“The Board appreciates the efforts of the [inspector general] in conducting this investigation and for the opportunity to correct deficiencies cited as dating back to 2008 (or earlier),” she said. “We expect that the investigation will result in clearer and more consistently applied laws, policies, and procurement practices.”
Brousaides also contended in the school board’s response that county boards of education in Maryland are not subject to the state’s general procurement law.
“The school system’s own policies and other governing documents referenced by the [inspector general] are applicable,” he wrote. “But, unless otherwise adopted by the school system, Maryland’s General Procurement Law, and its implementing regulation noted by the [inspector general], are not applicable to the Board.”
In the response, the school board also responded to the inspector general’s eight recommendations to make improvements. The board laid out ways it plans to improve, including the implementation of more training and to annually review policies with members.