- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Montgomery County school officials clashed with the County Council yesterday over the inspector general’s authority to look into school matters.

“I think the answer I heard is, it depends,” said council member Tom Perez, District 5 Democrat. “It leads one to believe, perhaps erroneously, that somebody might have something to hide, if they don’t welcome independent oversight.”

Mr. Perez made his comments at the end of a somewhat tense two-hour committee hearing on an audit of the school system that was issued Feb. 15 by Montgomery County Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley.

The audit stated that school officials misled the County Council about an estimated $14 million reconstruction project of Seven Locks Elementary School in Bethesda.

At issue is whether Seven Locks should have been renovated or demolished to build a new school or given to the county for affordable housing.

School officials told the council that the audit overlooked key information they gave Mr. Dagley.

“The inspector general is being used by persons in the community who are unhappy with the decision and are trying to get at pursuing the interests of property over the interests of children,” said Sharon W. Cox, vice president of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

Council members told school officials that Mr. Dagley’s audit highlighted the school system’s obligation to share all available information with the council when assessing spending projects.

The school system’s current budget is $1.7 billion.

Board of Education member Stephen Abrams was the first school official to respond to Mr. Dagley’s audit.

In a letter sent Feb. 7, Mr. Abrams said that Mr. Dagley did not have the authority to investigate the schools, and that state law gave the schools “broad authority to control all educational matters that affect the counties.”

A few council members pressed Mrs. Cox and other school officials on whether they thought Mr. Dagley has the authority to investigate the schools.

“Is the school system governed by county law?” Council President George L. Leventhal asked.

Mrs. Cox said that the school system “is a state agency that must comply with state and county law.”

After hearing Mrs. Cox’s response, Mr. Leventhal, at-large Democrat, asked to hear from Superintendent Jerry D. Weast or Board of Education President Charles Haughey.

Mr. Weast didn’t respond.

But, Mr. Haughey replied: “Because of our status as a state agency, we have to be careful about how we respond to you and to your inspector general.”

Council member Marilyn J. Praisner, District 4 Democrat, said there will be further hearings to discuss Mr. Dagley’s recommendations.

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