SALISBURY – A request to support a proposed change in state legislation led to a larger discussion on school system transparency last week.
School system officials came before the Wicomico County Council last week opposing proposed changes to the state education article on budget and reporting requirements for the Wicomico County Board of Education.
On the council’s agenda last week was a request from Councilwoman Nicole Acle to send a support letter to add Wicomico County to existing state legislation on budgetary requirements.
“This would be a bill correction,” she said. “The other counties with an executive form of government have had this since the inception of executive form. Wicomico formed an executive form of government after the state bill was approved. So this would be adding us to the already existing state legislation.”
The change to the state education article would require the Wicomico County Board of Education to submit a detailed report of all expenditures within major categories of its annual budget to the council on or before Nov. 1 and March 1 of each fiscal year.
“That report already exists, and it’s provided not only to the council but it’s provided to any community member who wants to see it,” School Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin said during public comments last week. “In fact, it’s month by month in more detail than you are requiring. It’s on our transparency portal.”
The amendment would also require the school board to come before the council if the school system spends more in a major category than what was approved in the annual budget.
“That’s already in the law …,” Hanlin added. “Any time we have a transfer from category to category, we have to bring it to the council.”
Hanlin noted that adding Wicomico County to the existing legislation would also require the school board to submit a report within 15 days of the end of each month if the board takes any action during that month to spend money in any major category other than the amount approved in the annual budget.
In short, Hanlin told council members last week the legislation being proposed was unnecessary.
“I come to you in all sincerity asking you to consider the need for collaboration on items like this,” she said. “I know the sentence in your letter says this will allow for greater transparency and will help promote trust between the county and the board of education, and the county and the public. It doesn’t feel that way to us. It makes us wonder where this is coming from.”
Hanlin noted that the public school system had won awards for its transparency and had received clean audits. She also pointed out that school system officials had not been invited to discuss the proposed support letter with county leaders.
“I hope we can continue to collaborate with you because we want that trust …,” she said. “Communication is the only way to do that.”
In last week’s work session, Acle said the proposed change was essentially a housekeeping measure. But school system officials disagreed.
“I am not familiar with this being just a housekeeping measure …,” Hanlin said. “There are five other counties in the state that have some sort of requirement, but they vary from county to county in terms of what was requested. My point is I know the legislation isn’t necessary, and part of it is already in the law.”
When asked why she was opposed to transparency, Hanlin said she wasn’t.
“I am not opposed to transparency,” she said. “Just the opposite. All I’m saying is these reports already exist.”
Councilman Joe Holloway, however, pointed out his experience with accessing information from the school system.
“The last time I asked for information I was told I could come to the office, sit in front of the computer, but I could not print out the information that I wanted, and I could not get copies of it,” he said. “It seems if somebody asks questions you don’t answer sometimes.”
Acle said she didn’t want to cause any contention between the council and school board, but wanted to give Wicomico the same ability as other counties with an executive form of government.
“It makes it clear the citizens want to see more transparency,” she said.
Councilmen Bill McCain and John Cannon disagreed. Cannon, an at-large county representative, noted that no resident had raised the issue with him.
“I can always agree with transparency requests, but I don’t think we should create such redundancies you are suggesting,” Cannon told Acle. “We could send a letter to the state requesting every single check the board of education writes has to cross this table first. That’s transparency if you want transparency. But what’s really efficient and effective is to allow them to do their job as they’re doing. If you need the information, it’s out there.”
Gene Malone, school board chairman, argued the school system was transparent. Both Malone and Councilman Josh Hastings suggested forming a work group to talk about any transparency issues and reporting requirements.
“The issue to me with this whole transaction or discussion is it’s based on transparency, but yet the way this is being handled isn’t very transparent,” Malone said.
The council reached a consensus to send a letter of support for adding Wicomico County to the state education article on reporting requirements. McCain, Cannon and Hastings opposed.