A report released by a state official last month says the Baltimore County school board violated state law by hiring outside counsel. The school board said they agree with the report, but have pushed back on some of the report’s reasoning.
In a response filed Tuesday from the board’s attorney, Eric C. Brousaides, says that a Maryland Code Education Article cited by the inspector general “is applicable.” The statue 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 the other provisions cited in the report, including the county charter, do not apply to the board. He says that the charter references “the department of education” as the 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.”
A report by Maryland’s State Inspector General for Education in December found that in January 2019, the school board hired the Columbia-based law firm Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scherr to help with the search for a new superintendent. The board initially had permission but once the search ended, Inspector General Richard Henry said the board violated state law by keeping the firm on as its attorney.
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, they had been paying another firm to be its primary attorney since 2008.
“During the interview process, BOE members expressed frustration in their lack of knowledge of the State and county laws governing the procurement process,” the report said. “Members advised the OIGE 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.
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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 OIGE 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 said 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 OIGE are applicable,” he wrote. “But, unless otherwise adopted by the school system, Maryland’s General Procurement Law, and its implementing regulation noted by the OIGE, are not applicable to the Board.”
In the response, the school board also directly 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.