- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

The Maryland House Appropriations Committee heard testimony yesterday on the results of an audit of Prince George's school officials' expenses that stopped short of calling for removal of individual board members or a restructuring of the board.

Delegate Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the committee, grilled auditor Ralph Bazilio on the scope and results of the audit, officially released last week.

Mr. Rawlings pointedly asked school board Chairman James Henderson about spending abuses detailed in the audit and the board's plan to rectify them. He heard testimony from Bea Tignor, representing the state-appointed management oversight panel, who said she was troubled by the audit's revelation of a lack of "best practices." And he heard a stern admonition from state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick on the audit's lack of recommendations for repayment of overdrawn accounts and unsubstantiated expenses.

But while the tone was occasionally harsh or sarcastic, most officials stopped short of asking for radical action and instead gave the board time to implement changes.

Delegate Rushern L. Baker, Prince George's Democrat, said he was "encouraged by the recommendations of the audit and the board's willingness to accept them. The school board is making changes, and we are committed to making sure changes are in place by January."

Mrs. Grasmick, who was asked by Mr. Rawlings to examine the possibility of removing individual board members, said she wasn't "in the position to make a recommendation at the moment."

But Mr. Rawlings questioned the board's ability to make the necessary changes itself.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see something is wrong here," Mr. Rawlings said. "And I don't know why we should have confidence they are going to change their behavior."

While Prince George's officials promised to improve practices and procedures, they also tried to downplay the impact of the audit.

"This does not look as bad as it has been reported," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George's Democrat. "It is $47,000 out of a $1 billion budget. The dollars don't warrant all the negative publicity."

Mr. Henderson told legislators that the board is planning to adopt the recommendations within 30 days. He promised that board members would repay overdrafts of the $9,800 accounts each board member receives and would reimburse the school system for expenses deemed inappropriate by auditors. He added that board members would give up their credit cards this month.

"The audit cites no criminal intent of any board member, and the vast majority of expenses were found to be legitimate," he said.

He stopped short of saying he had unanimous board support to cut up the board credit cards. School sources say three members are opposed. The board will vote on that measure Oct. 12.

Mr. Henderson also said the board is looking into ways to censure board members who committed serious violations. This would most likely apply to District 9 board member Marilynn Bland, who was the impetus for the audit, sources said.

Lawmakers also questioned why Prince George's school board expense accounts were the highest in the state but did not ask why it was one of the few counties that had school board expense accounts at all.

The hearing was described as "tame" by observers. State, county and school officials expected Mr. Rawlings to harshly criticize the Prince George's school board members for their school credit card abuses.

Meanwhile, school officials are gearing up for today's management oversight panel meeting, which will discuss the audit and others issues including the "lowballing" of required qualifications for the position of chief information officer, school sources said. The school system has advertised the position, formerly held by Alberta L. Paul, as requiring a bachelor's degree and three years of experience in technology. The position requires managing a $1 million budget and a staff of more than 100.

"The qualifications are higher for a programmer," said one school source.

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