A judge has ordered that Baltimore County Public Schools’ chief auditor be reinstated and her contract extended, ruling that the school board erred in not renewing Andrea Barr’s contract despite a 6-0 vote in support of it. But the board of education disagrees.

During a May 17 special meeting, six members of the then-11-member board, including the student member, voted to renew the contract of Barr, a 36-year county employee who had issued reports critical of the board’s budgetary practices. However, two board members — Lily Rowe and Russell Keuhn —recused themselves and three others abstained. They were Chairwoman Julie Henn and board members Kathleen Causey and Lisa Mack.

A board policy states seven votes are needed to approve agenda items. Henn determined that a motion to renew Barr’s contract had failed, according to minutes of the meeting. Barr contended in a lawsuit against the school board and district that she had received the necessary majority of votes.

Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Nancy Purpura agreed, granting Barr’s motion for a temporary restraining order. It ordered the school board to correct the vote and extend Barr’s contract to June 30, 2023. Her last day would have been Thursday. The judge also agreed to set a preliminary injunction hearing for July 6.

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Kathleen Cahill, the lawyer representing Barr, said in a news release that her client “obtained a court order halting the campaign to unlawfully end her 36-year career ... Ms. Barr now looks forward to continuing her extraordinary career performing her critical work to ‘safeguard and preserve the assets and resources of the board and report all instances of suspected fraud, waste, abuse or unlawful acts,’ free of retaliation.”

In a June 29 response to the lawsuit, the board’s lawyer, Eric Brousaides, said the order to reinstate Barr should be overturned. Since the board has 12 seats, he argued, seven votes are needed to pass a motion, regardless of whether there is a vacancy. At the time of the vote, a 12th seat was vacant after Cheryl Pasteur had left the board to run for the Maryland House of Delegates. Her school board seat has since been filled, with the appointment of Felicia Stolusky.

Brousaides did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

“No judge is going to rule on that pleading at this late point,” Cahill wrote in an email. “It is July 1 and she is still working.”

Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the school system, said earlier this week that officials had no comment on the personnel matter.

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Barr previously contended that the decision not to renew her contract followed threats by some school board members to bend to their agendas; audit reviews that showed the system exceeded its budget; and a state investigation that found violations of state and county law.

In a letter appealing the school board’s decision to the state board of education, Barr noted that she had written two reports that found irregularities and improper expenditures in the board’s non-salary budget.

The 2020 report stated that board members failed to follow protocols in purchasing items in excess of $1,000, signing financial documents and staying within budget, among other things. A follow-up audit review showed that some of the same practices were still being used this past school year.

“The then-Board Chair and the then-Board Audit Committee Chair initiated a campaign of pressure and threats to influence the work of our office in a quest to develop audit results suiting their agenda and to obscure or erase fact-based findings, including fact-based findings regarding their own conduct,” Barr wrote in a June 16 letter. “That culminated in express threats to fire me or even to go so far as to abolish the Office of Internal Audit if I did not bend to their personal agendas.”

She requested that the state board reinstate her or that the county school board take another vote.

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“I also ask that the offending board members be investigated and considered for removal for their actions,” she said.

At the time of the audit review, Causey was the board chair and Keuhn was the chair of the audit committee.

No school board members returned requests for comment.

Brousaides said in a motion for dissolution of a temporary restraining order that an investigation showed no board members “took adverse employment action against Ms. Barr when she refused to act on requests that she considered inappropriate.” And, the motion said, there was no evidence of a “discriminatory motive” by the board members.

In a June 21 letter to Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams, the state board said it was expediting the appeal and required a response from the local school board by Friday.

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In 2020, Barr’s internal audit of the board’s non-salary expenditures from Dec. 3, 2018 to Dec. 31, 2019 showed multiple protocols weren’t followed. The audit focused on purchases over $1,000, the signing of financial documents, approval of payments, payment of expenses in the appropriate fiscal year, travel reimbursements, legal fees and spending in excess of the budget.

“Some of the same errors or exceptions raised in the internal auditor report were also the ones that we found,” said Richard Henry, Maryland’s inspector general for education, referring to a review that the agency conducted in December.

Barr identified ways to fix the errors. But an April 2022 report showed only three of the seven deficiencies had been corrected. And a complaint made to the inspector general accused the board of continuing to violate state and county laws even after having been cited.

Henry said the inspector general’s office only investigates complaints filed by others, adding that the one it received was serious enough to merit an investigation. It accused board members of violating Maryland law and the county code when they hired an outside legal firm, and that they continued to do so knowing they were in violation.

State law only allows the district to hire a law firm for disputes with the county government, according to Henry.

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When the school board was searching for a new superintendent in 2019, the school system’s Office of Law hired Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scheer, or CKBBS, to help with the search.

Causey, the chair at the time, thought using the system’s law office would pose a conflict of interest because she did not want the school administration at the time to be involved in the search, according to Barr’s report.

After that contract expired in January 2020, the board voted to enter into a new contract with the firm to serve as its primary counsel. Six months later, the board voted not to renew a contract with the law firm of Andy Nussbaum, its primary attorney for school board matters since 2008.

Baltimore County Attorney James Benjamin wrote to the school board that it could not hire an outside law firm to handle board business. The OIGE report states that the rule was not listed in the board’s handbooks and onboarding resources.

“Members advised the OIGE they were not aware of any clear policy of how legal services were to be contacted and utilized,” the report states. “A number of members believe other members were, and continue to, contact CKBBS directly, without notifying the Chair. This process creates an environment in which legal fees are incurred by the BCPS and are not unauthorized or relevant to the board as a whole.”

The school system also requires that the board maintain a balanced budget. However, it exceeded its fiscal 2019 non-salary operating budget by 149%. The budget was $128,235, but school board members spent $191,286. Both the state investigation and Barr’s internal audit noted the finding.

In response, the board stated in the report that the cost of conducting a search for a new superintendent and the associated legal expenses caused the overspending. The two services were not budgeted for fiscal year 2019.

A follow-up report by Barr states that the errors were not fully fixed. The board exceeded its fiscal year 2021 non-salary operating budget by $64,145, or 68%

Some findings from the internal audit have been corrected, such as those dealing with purchase-order procedures and proper approval for reimbursements and transactions. But other guidelines continued to be violated.

For example, the school system received an invoice of $9,480 for legal services in early 2019 before getting an approved purchase order. The board chair did not approve a requisition order for those services. Instead, the senior executive assistant signed as the account manager for the purchase requisition.

“A copy of an email documents that the board chair was aware of the requisition, however, did not indicate that she gave approval for the senior executive assistant,” the report stated.

The board said it would follow protocol, but the 2022 report showed another error was made. An invoice of $8,350 from the Maryland Association of School Boards for professional fees was received before the purchase order was approved.

School system guidance states “invoices must be reviewed, approved and submitted in a timely manner to ensure payment in the proper fiscal year,” according to the 2020 report.

The senior executive assistant also used the board chair’s signature stamp to approve invoices and reimbursements, with the board chair’s permission. However, the school system advises against using a stamp.

The chair said the action would be corrected and a procedure will be developed to outline when a stamp can be used in unavoidable situations. The procedure had not been created at the time of the 2022 report.

“It is anticipated that it will be completed by summer of 2022,” the report states.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original version.

kristen.griffith@thebaltimorebanner.com

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