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Commissioners could request audit of School Board

January 10, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - At least two Washington County Commissioners said this week they would support hiring a consultant to conduct a detailed examination of the Board of Education's operations in an attempt to save money and make the education system more efficient.

But former and current School Board members on Thursday questioned the need for such a study - called a performance audit - saying the School Board already has undertaken several cost-cutting measures and conducted a similar study on its own last year.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said he would like a performance audit of the School Board to be completed before he can support adopting new taxes for the county.

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Performance audits generally examine functions, staffing and programs of organizations and offer recommendations on what can be improved and how much money can be saved by those improvements.

"I think that that would be one of my requirements before I could sign on to any new taxes," Wivell said. "I think the taxpayers want to know how their money is being spent."

In light of the economic downturn and possible state funding cuts, the County Commissioners have been considering whether to ask lawmakers for the authority to impose transfer or excise taxes on real estate transactions.

They said the taxes would generate additional revenue for the county. The commissioners have said imposing impact fees on developers is another option.

Wivell said he would propose the audit for the school system if a similar study slated for county government this year produces good results.

The county is permitted by state law to conduct the performance audit because the county is the School Board's funding source, Wivell said. The county gives the School Board about $70 million a year in operating expenses.

"It's probably a darn good idea," Commissioner John C. Munson said. "I think there's a lot to be saved at the board. If Wivell would propose it, I would vote for it, yes."

Commissioner Doris J. Nipps, who left the School Board in December after being elected a commissioner, said she's not sure a performance audit of the school system is a good idea.

She said the School Board created the Management Review Team last spring to examine the school system's operations. The team, which consisted of area business and community leaders, determined after a three-week study that the School Board wasn't wasting money.

But it also listed 80 recommendations for improving the operation of the school system.

Wivell was a member of that team.

"If the Board of Education has already looked at some of these areas ... I guess I question spending another large amount of money to have one done, when essentially one has been done," Nipps said.

Just after the Management Review Team's study was completed, Wivell said the team didn't have time to look for wasteful spending or examine the school system's operations in detail. He called the review a good start and said a more in-depth study should be done.

School Board member Roxanne Ober said she questioned what the commissioners would accomplish with a performance audit and where the money would come from to pay for cost-saving measures that the audit might recommend.

"I do not feel that a performance audit is necessary for the School Board," Ober said. "I think the board and the staff are working very hard to reduce costs."

Ober said the School Board trimmed positions at the board's central office last school year, has consolidated health insurance coverage with the county and is looking into future consolidation of services with the county and city of Hagerstown. She also said the board has implemented many of the review team's recommendations.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he wanted to discuss the issue with the School Board and hear more about the cost of a performance audit before he decides whether to support one.

Wivell said he also wants to look into whether allocating the School Board money per budget category would be beneficial to the county. Right now, it's up to the School Board to decide how it wants to spend the money it receives from the county.

Under the per category method, the county would say how much each School Board budget category - such as teachers' salaries or facilities - would receive, Nipps said.

"I do not agree with that," said Nipps, who added that the School Board was elected to make those decisions.

Nipps said the commissioners are not involved with the day-to-day operations of the school system and aren't qualified to say how much each budget item should receive.

"I don't think we have the kind of knowledge to say how much should go in facilities or how much should go in teachers' salaries," Nipps said. "The Board of Education needs to be permitted to do what they were elected to do."

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