State legislators from Baltimore County said they are looking for ways to increase accountability for school officials in the wake of county schools Superintendent Joe Hairston's refusal to answer questions about a controversial student grading program.
Some lawmakers are even calling for possibly establishing an elected school board.
At issue is what legislators believe is Hairston's refusal to answer questions about the student grading program known as the Articulated Instruction Module, more commonly known as AIM. The program was to be instituted in schools throughout the county earlier this year but was shelved following complaints from teachers and parents.
County legislators said they are frustrated with the lack of answers about who really owns the computer program and whether or not a former assistant superintendent who created the original paper system can now sell it to other schools systems for her own personal profit.
"We need some more transparency, that's what we need," said Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Democrat who represents the 8th District including Perry Hall and Parkville. "I don't think (Hairston) doing what he wants so cavalierly is the way I want my school system run."
Klausmeier was one of 11 of the county's 29 senators and delegates who signed a letter asking Attorney General Douglas Gansler to look into questions surrounding the school system's controversial Articulated Instruction Module grading plan. The request followed a January public hearing in Annapolis with Hairston and other school officials about AIM.
Four of those legislators said they believe the county delegation will take up the issue of increased accountability, possibly through creating some form of an elected school board, when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
"(Hairston is) a master tactician," said Del. Susan Aumann, a Republican who represents the 42nd District, which includes Towson, Timonium and part of Pikesville. "I find it somewhat difficult to have faith in things because he is so skilled at deflecting answers to questions."
Aumann was one of the legislators who requested the attorney general's review. Her comments reflect the feelings expressed in January by several county legislators who attended that joint public hearing earlier this year.
In the letter to Gansler following the hearing, legislators asked several questions. They wanted to know if the school system owned the computer program that was developed from a paper version created by former Assistant Superintendent Barbara Dezmon. They also asked if there were ethical questions to consider because Dezmon retained the rights to sell the program to other schools even thought Baltimore County schools resources and employees were used to create it. In addition, the lawmakers asked if a school system work group violated state Open Meetings laws when it prohibited representatives of the teachers union from attending meetings about the program.
A Sept. 15 letter from the attorney general to those legislators stated that the first two questions could not be answered because neither Hairston nor Dezmon, who retired in June, would answer questions. The letter did conclude, however, that no Open Meetings violations occurred because the state law did not apply to the work group.
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler, said there was no formal investigation of the school system and that subpoenas could not be used to compel Hairston and Dezmon to answer questions.
A school system spokesman said Hairston was in Washington DC at a conference and was not available for comment.
"(Hairston) must believe there's something he doesn't want to share or doesn't have to share," said Del. Steve Lafferty, a Democrat who represents the 42nd District.
By law, school systems across the state are set up as independent departments designed to be removed from political pressure. Budgets are difficult to cut because most funding is protected by state law. Legislators are loathe to trim budgets where they can because the public generally supports funding of public schools.
Some legislators said they are no longer happy with being asked to supply $1 billion in state and county funding without any power to get responses from school officials.
"When we ask questions we should get more than a pat on the head and asked politely to go away," said Del. Bill Frank, a 42nd District Republican who also signed the letter to Gansler. "There has to be some oversight to the system."
Klausmeier, Aumann, Frank and Lafferty said they believe legislators from the county will take a long hard look at laws that could increase transparency and accountability of the schools system.
Those efforts could involve a some sort of hybrid or fully elected school board. All four said they would also likely support an effort to have the schools system reviewed by the Joint Audit Committee. Del. Steve DeBoy, a Democrat who represents District 12A including Catonsville and Arbutus, is co-chair of the committee and also signed the letter to Gansler.
"It's not an issue that is going to go away," said Lafferty. "There's going to be a lot more discussion."