Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Sherrie Bailey issued a preliminary injunction halting the attempt by a minority of the members of the Board of Education of Baltimore County to terminate the employment of Andrea Barr, chief auditor of Baltimore County Public Schools. The injunction will remain in place until a trial on the merits of Barr’s claim that the termination is unlawful.
Evidence already produced in the case makes clear that Barr has been targeted for removal by certain board members since the membership of the board changed in December 2018. The judge described the evidence as “concerning.” As the case proceeds, it undoubtedly will shed further light on an important body badly in need of rehabilitating its organizational culture.
The dysfunctional picture of the board painted by its public meetings, frequently dominated by interpersonal conflict, is grim enough. What lies beneath the surface appears much uglier.
Barr states that certain board members want to fire her because she refused demands to change audit findings and embarrassed them in audit reports. The idea of public officials attacking a “watchdog” tasked with monitoring their conduct strikes a particular nerve in Baltimore and Baltimore County. Ask the city and county inspectors general.
A parliamentary maneuver that was a little too cute
Barr serves as chief auditor and head of the Office of Internal Audit (OIA) under a contract renewed annually. The contract was on the board’s agenda on May 17, with Superintendent of Schools Daryl Williams recommending approval.
Renewal was blocked by an odd maneuver that appears to have been orchestrated. No board member voted against renewal. Six members voted in favor of renewal, two members recused themselves and three others abstained. At the time there was one vacancy on the 12-person board. The members who recused themselves or abstained gave no reason for doing so.
The current chairperson, Julia Henn, was among the members who abstained. She declared that the board’s rules require an affirmative vote by a majority of the entire board (seven members) to approve action taken by the board, and that the 6-0 vote therefore was one vote shy of the number needed to renew Barr’s contract.
Barr’s suit challenges Henn’s procedural decision. Barr also alleges that her discharge from employment is reprisal for refusing to bow to pressure by certain board members, including Kathleen Causey and Russell Kuehn, to alter fact-based audit findings. According to Barr, the pressure included threats to fire her or abolish her office if she did not comply. Causey abstained from the vote on Barr’s contract, and Kuehn recused himself.
The county Board of Education defends Henn’s decision on the 6-0 vote and relies on Barr’s status as an at-will employee to defend the termination itself. The potential flaw in the defense is that the right to terminate Barr “with or without cause” does not include the right to terminate her for an improper reason. Retaliation for failing to yield to unlawful demands is an improper reason.
If Barr’s allegations are true, Causey and Kuehn violated the charter of the Office of Internal Audited adopted by the board. The charter flatly prohibits “interference by any element in the organization related to matters of audit selection, scope, procedures, frequency, timing or report content to permit maintenance of [the office’s] required independence and objectivity.” [Emphasis added.]
Four years of dysfunction
Causey, Kuehn and Henn joined the board in December 2018, and Causey was elected chairperson the same month. The BOE has been plagued by controversy ever since.
In March 2019, board member Roger Hayden filed a complaint with the school system’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office. The complaint accused Causey and Kuehn of trying to bully Barr into complying with their demands and treating her rudely and inappropriately when she failed to do so. Hayden, now deceased, was a former county executive who served as chairperson of the school board for six years. He stated that Causey, Henn and Kuehn mistreated people, and described the board atmosphere as “toxic.”
An outside law firm, Nelson Mullins, investigated the complaint. It found no evidence that the conduct of Causey and Kuehn “was based on discriminatory motive.” It did, however, take Kuehn to task for blaming Barr for the destruction of financial disclosure statements needed for an external audit. In a letter dated July 18, 2019, Kuehn stated that “Mrs. Barr was responsible for retaining [the financial disclosure forms] that were destroyed on her watch.”
In fact, the OIA was not the custodian of the records, the Ethics Review Panel of the school board was, and Baltimore County Public Schools general counsel Margaret Ann F. Howie ordered their destruction. Nelson Mullins had this to say about Kuehn’s accusation: “We found this bald statement, without factual support or evidence, by the Audit Chair [of the BOE] who is charged with overseeing Ms. Barr’s performance, to be inconsistent with BCPS Policies or the Board Handbook.”
Another case of retaliation against a “watchdog” agency
Barr also accuses board members of retaliating against her because of two audits that identified irregularities and improper expenditures by certain BOE members. The audits were followed by a complaint filed with the Maryland Inspector General for Education.
The IG’s report dated December 21, 2021 found that Causey, Henn and other board members violated state and school district procurement rules by artificially dividing a procurement into increments worth less than the $50,000 limit on non-competitive, sole-source procurements. The board then awarded a legal services contract without seeking competitive proposals as it should have done. The contract was awarded to the firm defending the BOE in the case brought by Barr.
Causey launched her career on the board by searching for procurement violations during the administration of former superintendent of schools Dallas Dance. Imagine her chagrin at finding herself publicly cited for a procurement violation.
Causey and other new board members in 2018 had reason to want to make sure that any wrongdoing during Dance’s tenure was identified and corrected. Dance resigned in 2017, and in March 2018 pleaded guilty to perjury for failing to report outside consulting income on financial disclosure forms.
Causey clashed openly with former interim superintendent Verletta White over White’s refusal to order a second audit of procurement practices after an independent audit released in April 2019 disclosed no significant problems during the Dance administration. Causey helped lead a successful effort to persuade former state school superintendent Karen Salmon to veto the county BOE’s selection of White, who also violated ethics rules by failing to report outside consulting work, as the permanent BCPS superintendent.
The history, however, is no excuse for targeting an innocent employee for removal, especially when that employee is the chief auditor. More recent history suggests that some members want Barr gone because they fear her independence and objectivity.
An impetus for change
Testimony at the injunction hearing on July 6 consisted of a parade of witnesses showering Barr with praise for an exemplary 36-year career with the BOE. The witnesses included former and current board members, as well as state education IG Richard Henry. A current board member, Moalie Jose, testified that she, too, had been threatened by Causey.
The BOE’s lawyer offered no testimony explaining the decision not to renew Barr’s contract. Nor did he explain the contrived appearance of the vote on May 17. I suspect that there are no good explanations, or we would have heard them.
The trial in this case promises to give county residents a window into how the BOE operates. Hopefully the case will be the impetus for parents, as well as the State Board of Education, to insist that the Baltimore County BOE shed what appears to be its preoccupation with power plays and petty politics, stop trying to eviscerate the Office of Internal Audit and focus on educating students.
David Plymyer is a former Anne Arundel County Attorney. He retired in 2014.