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Council, School System Debate Audit

Former School Board president says inspector general is “being used” by unhappy community members.

County Councilmember Phil Andrews (D-3) had his first chance to speak nearly an hour into a joint committee meeting March 2 to discuss an Office of Inspector General report on construction plans at Seven Locks Elementary School.

“There’s some tension in the room,” he said. “I know that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But the fact is that our whole system of government is set up to provide some tension between branches of government.”

That tension is reaching a head this month as the Council considers two opposing measures March 7 and March 21 that would determine the future of Seven Locks.

At the same time, fissures have begun to appear within the Council and between the Council and Board over the larger significance of the report and the relationship between the county and school system.

THE FEB. 15 report found that Montgomery County Public Schools did not present some construction options to the Council and Board of Education and used inflated cost data compared to similar projects. In early 2004, MCPS abandoned a plan to renovate and expand Seven Locks, deciding instead to build a replacement school on a wooded site nearby.

Eight of nine councilmembers attended the March 2 joint meeting of the Council’s Education Committee and Management and Fiscal Policy Committee.

It was Inspector General Thomas Dagley’s first public appearance since issuing the report and his chance to answer a more than 50-page MCPS rebuttal of the audit.

Dagley stressed that the audit was financial in nature and was concerned with transparency in cost reporting and expenditure of county resources, not with policy questions. He rejected the idea that the audit was conducted in a hasty or prejudiced manner.

“Once we decided the [community] complaints warranted examination, we determined that a formal audit process was the appropriate tool to use. By applying generally accepted government auditing standards, we ensured our approach was objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, and non-ideological in our relationships with those audited and users of the audit report,” he said.

Board of Education member Sharon Cox, who was president of the Board during much of the Seven Locks saga, spoke on behalf of MCPS, with current President Charles Haughey and other officials making brief statements.

Superintendent Jerry Weast was present but did not speak.

“Our concern here is that the inspector general is not necessarily working at the direction of the Council but … is being used by persons in the community that are unhappy with the decision and are trying to get at pursuing the interests of property over the interests of children,” Cox said.

MCPS Chief Operating Officer Larry Bowers said, “We were really frustrated with the process. … We felt we had not been listened to; we felt we had not been heard.”

IN SOMETIMES terse exchanges, several councilmembers chided MCPS officials for an initial response to the audit report that questioned the inspector general’s authority and then attacked his methodology but did not answer the substance of the findings.

Councilmember Tom Perez asked Cox repeatedly whether the school system believes that the inspector general has the authority to audit it.

She replied that the school system must adhere to county law but that state law provides the “guidelines” with which the audit must comply.

“I don’t know what that answer means,” Perez said.

Haughey addressed the same issue by saying, “Because of our status as a state agency we have to be very careful about how we respond to you and your inspector general. … We need to measure the ways we do that.”

MCPS did acknowledge at least one finding of the report: that it had construction options that it chose not to provide to the County Council.

Council President George Leventhal (D-At Large), spoke calmly but firmly, reading to MCPS Facilities Director Richard Hawes his own statements from earlier in the meeting.

“The school system decides what it believes is best and it provides the information that backs up its policy judgment. Am I wrong?” Leventhal asked.

Hawes said that he was correct.

Leventhal asked again, “The school system decides what it believes is best and then it provides the Council with the information that backs up its position.”

“Absolutely correct,” Hawes said.

Other developments this week:

* Churchill cluster leaders have chosen the members of a 14-person Boundary Advisory Committee that will advise MCPS on service area boundaries for the Seven Locks Replacement School on Kendale Road, if it is built. The Kendale School is still set to be built beginning this year and open in August 2007, contingent upon a $3.3 million Council appropriation for cost overruns.

* County Councilmember Howard Denis, whose district includes Seven Locks, formally introduced a CIP amendment proposal that would in effect reverse the Council’s 2004 decision to support building on Kendale and scrap plans to make improvements at Seven Locks. On March 2, Denis presented several documents he said supported the idea, including a letter from Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage to Weast citing two Planning Board members’ “serious reservations” about Kendale. (See box.)

* Following two meetings, the Potomac Elementary School PTA voted to abandon a long-standing position supporting construction on Kendale in favor of the Denis plan. It was an almost unanimous vote with one nay and three abstentions, according to PTA member Diana Conway.

"It is a leap of faith that giving up a near-term solution will yield a better long-term solution," Conway said in an e-mail.

The day after the PTA vote, 2005 Potomac PTA President Julie Dobson wrote the County Council and Board of Education stating her opposition, as an individual, to the Denis plan and encouraging them to support the Kendale supplement that night.

THE DENIS AMENDMENT

On Feb. 28, County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) introduced a motion that would end plans to build an elementary school on Kendale Road and reinstate an earlier plan to increase local school capacity by building at Seven Locks.

Denis' proposal, an amendment to the fiscal year 2005-2010 Capital Improvements Program, calls for withdrawing the money currently committed to Kendale and using $18.7 million to build a new school on the Seven Locks site, tearing down the existing school and sending Seven Locks students to a holding school, the former Radnor Elementary, during construction.

The rebuilt Seven Locks would be built to the same capacity specifications as those planned for Kendale, but it would open in September 2008, one year later than Kendale.

The proposal needs a six-vote majority to pass the nine-member Council. The Council will take testimony on the amendment at a March 21 public hearing.

At a March 2 news conference, Denis presented documents that he said corroborated his plan as the best and least costly option. They included a 2001 architect’s study that named tearing down and rebuilding at Seven Locks at the “preferred option,” a Planning Board letter raising concerns about building on Kendale, and a brief catalog of Denis’ own on-record statements over the past three years calling for more complete data, which was never provided.

“I’ve never seen anything like this situation before. But no matter who said what when, I think it’s clear that there is an option that is thoroughly researched by the inspector general that needs to be considered,” Denis said, “and should be voted up or down.”

Denis said that in light of expenditures on Kendale, such as design fees, that cannot be recovered, his proposal amounts to "a wash" financially and does introduce a one-year delay, but said that it is more environmentally sound and more widely supported.

"It's a wash and it's a year's delay because of the lack of data" available to the Council preceding the audit report, he said.

Asked whether he would apply more careful scrutiny to MCPS in the future, Denis replied, "The fact that it took an inspector general to dig out some of the facts speaks for itself. … I think we have to notch up our oversight."