Should Baltimore County’s inspector general oversee the public schools?

The debate follows the prior school board’s efforts to dump an auditor who questioned its practices

Published 1/6/2023 6:00 a.m. EST

The Baltimore County Board of Education’s logo as seen the wall during their bi-weekly meeting at the Greenwood Campus on 8/23/22.

As a commission formed by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. hashes out reforms to the inspector general’s office, some residents suggest the county’s corruption watchdog be empowered to root out fraud, waste and abuse within the county schools.

At least one school board member, former Chair Julie Henn, has said she supports giving Inspector General Kelly Madigan authority to investigate the school system, which has been seen as dysfunctional for years because of infighting and protocols violations.

The school board now oversees the superintendent while a chief auditor keeps an eye on the board’s and system’s governance. However, the auditor, with similar responsibilities to an inspector general, reports to the school board. Chief Auditor Andrea Barr recently won a settlement after accusing board members of retaliating against her for reporting their violations. There’s also a state inspector general of education, but he only investigates formally submitted complaints.

Montgomery County is home to the only inspector general in the state that has oversight over its public schools. One state lawmaker said that while the authority is fairly new, he’s already seeing the payoff.

Before her tenure as board chair ended, Henn said in a December Facebook post that she’d welcome the additional oversight.

“I have championed the independence and work of the Baltimore County Office of Inspector General and wholeheartedly welcome the oversight,” she wrote.

She said a bill was introduced in 2021 to provide that oversight, but it was withdrawn. She said she’d support it again should it be introduced.

Henn did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Jane Lichter, the current board chair, said she’d have to learn more about what that level of oversight would look like.

Madigan, a former state prosecutor, became the county’s first inspector general in 2019.

She was hired by Olszewski, a Democrat, as the county’s ethics director. At her request, the county executive then revised her title and created the Office of the Inspector General. The bylaw establishing Madigan’s authority says the inspector general has unrestricted access to county records.

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Reports from her office, which was created in 2019, revealed that the county government gave preferential treatment to David Cordish, a prominent developer, when he proposed constructing a large tennis facility at his residence; and that Council Chair Julian Jones insisted county officials repave a Towson alley to help a business owner. The $70,000 cost was paid for by a program intended for homeowners.

The relationship between Madigan and Olszewski’s administration and the County Council has been fraught as she has investigated department heads, Olszewski’s top aides and council members. In 2021, Olszewski sought to restrict Madigan’s investigatory powers and create an oversight board with members appointed by his office and the County Council.

Olszewski, who was reelected in November, changed course after a public backlash. He opted instead to establish the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability to reform Madigan’s office. Olszewski’s administration and Jones say the county law that authorizes the inspector general’s powers was written too broadly and gives Madigan too much leeway to investigate local government.

Jones, who has twice been investigated by the inspector general, said in an interview he isn’t sure it’s necessary for Madigan to oversee the school system, citing the existing roles of the state inspector general and the school system’s chief auditor.

“I think they have sufficient oversight,” the Democrat said. “I don’t want to say they don’t need more, but I think they have sufficient already.”

Richard Henry, the state’s inspector general of education, has a memorandum of understanding with the inspectors general for both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Of Madigan, he said, “If she is conducting an investigation and has any contact with the school or involves the school system, then she gets involved with me and we work it jointly.”

In Henry’s 2022 annual report, one of the 26 complaints received about the Baltimore County Public Schools was lodged by Madigan’s office. It alleged fraud in the construction of Westowne Elementary School. Henry’s office, however, didn’t find “clear and convincing evidence” of intentional wrongdoing.

Henry said Baltimore City and County are among the few localities with local inspectors general. The only other is in Montgomery County, where the county’s IG has jurisdiction over the school system. State lawmakers had granted those powers shortly before the pandemic stopped gatherings.

Megan Davey Limarzi, Montgomery County’s inspector general, said she and her staff have “spent the last two years really trying to figure out how best to address our oversight.”

She quickly determined that her office, which has 17 full-time positions, needed more staff.

The public schools account for at least half of Montgomery County’s operating budget. Limarzi called the system a massive organization with its own policies, procedures and organizational structure. The goal is to provide proactive — not just reactive — oversight, she said. She does not want to simply respond to hotline tips, like the state education inspector general.

The work is still new. Limarzi said her office has a relationship with Henry’s office, and that it makes sure her work doesn’t conflict with the school system’s auditor and compliance officer.

“I think we really are at a place where we’re trying to get our name out there so that the school community knows that we’re here,” Limarzi said.

Montgomery state Sen. Benjamin Kramer pushed for Limarzi’s office to oversee the schools.

“I think the position is critically important to ensure that we prevent waste, that we protect the taxpayers from people who are misusing funds and to ensure that there is transparency within the department,” he said in an interview.

Kramer added that if people see something happen that needs to be reported, they can take comfort in the fact that an independent entity will investigate and protect the identity of a whistleblower.

The Democrat said the public schools did not fight him on his push for additional oversight, and he’s already seeing its benefits. In a Dec. 8 report, Limarzi’s office revealed school employees misused $133,000 of funds through county credit cards.

Kramer said having an inspector general is “a great idea for all major county agencies.”

“Everybody has or should have the confidence that the money that’s going into our school budget is properly managed,” he said. “And when you get into these huge bureaucracies, waste and fraud is always going to be an issue.”

Henry said inspector general offices are becoming more common, and that the public is starting to see the importance of its work. In Florida, a law mandates every state agency has an inspector general.

The Baltimore County school system has an internal audit office, Henry noted. Its job is to determine whether the system’s control and governance process is adequate and functioning. The system’s Office of Internal Audit charter describes the office as independent, but it reports to the school board. It’s the model of most school systems.

“Those individuals report directly to the law office, or they report to the board,” Henry said of school auditors. “And 99% of the time, I think the board accepts the audit report. … And we’re there for that 1%.”

In 2020, Barr audited the board’s non-salary expenditures from Dec. 3, 2018 to Dec. 31, 2019. It showed multiple protocols weren’t followed related to purchases of more than $1,000, the signing of financial documents, the approval of payments, the payment of expenses in the appropriate fiscal year, travel reimbursements, spending in excess of the budget, and the hiring of an outside legal firm.

Henry’s office found that, too. Hiring the firm was a violation of state law and the county code, his office stated, and they continued to do so knowing they were in violation.

In May 2022, the school board voted not to renew Barr’s contract. Barr filed suit, accusing the school board of retaliation, and won a $115,000 settlement. She’s still working at the school system.

In one hearing, Henry testified that his investigation confirmed Barr’s findings.

Henn still argues that the board was justified in using the law firm.

In a Jan. 2 Facebook post, she noted that every other Maryland school board did not have such a rule, and that Baltimore County’s rule was repealed in July, after Barr reported the violation.

“And when the Board sought to exercise the same right every other Board in the state enjoys, why were we slaughtered?” Henn wrote.

Taylor DeVille contributed to this report.