Schools' transparency bill gets mixed reaction from House
Some delegates say information already available on system's Web site
ANNAPOLIS — Members of the county's House delegation have mixed feelings about a proposed bill to make more of the county school system's business transactions open to the public.
If passed by the General Assembly, Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr.'s bill would require the schools to publish in a database details on spending of $10,000 and up.
School system leaders would have to build the database, which they estimate could cost as much as $50,000.
Carr's bill would not pertain to any other school system in the state.
Some delegates have questioned the bill's intent and say that the information sought by parents is already on the school system's Web site.
But members of the county's Parents Coalition, an advocacy group, say that more oversight is needed over the school system's purchases. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has questioned the benefits of this bill.
"It certifies much greater transparency in spending than the information that's available right now," said coalition member Louis Wilen of Rockville, who testified before the county's House delegation Friday. "It'll promote even greater transparency for the school system."
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a former county school board president, disagrees.
"The information is already there; it is transparent," Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase said during the delegation meeting. As proposed, the bill "would go beyond what any other school board has to do," she said.
Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House Majority leader, said he supports Carr's bill, but would want the school system's spending information to be presented in a way that people can understand.
"If you don't format it in a way that is useful, then it's worthless," Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg said Monday. "People think that numbers by themselves explain things. I just want to make sure the numbers make some sense."
The county school board supports the bill in theory but disagrees with some of its details.
The board agreed to fully back Carr's bill if money is made available to build the database. Carr (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington told the delegation Friday that his bill does not provide a funding source.
If the state does not provide funding for the database, then the money would come from the school system's central office, and not from funds directly related to classrooms, Laura M. Steinberg, the school board's Annapolis liaison, told the delegation.
The school board also wants Carr to increase the dollar amount of spending to $25,000 and up, which would be consistent with a state law passed last year.
Del. Charles E. Barkley (D-Dist. 39) of Germantown asked Carr the likelihood of increasing the dollar amount; Carr said he is willing to discuss it.
The Maryland Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2008 required the state's Department of Budget and Management to develop a searchable Web site of payments greater than $25,000.
The law, however, does not pertain to the state's school systems.
In a Nov. 3 opinion to Carr, Robert N. McDonald, chief counsel of the attorney general's Opinion, Advice and Legislation Division, wrote that while the school system is considered a state agency in many ways, it is partially funded by the county and does not have to put its information on the state site.
"State legislation could require local school systems to make payment information available to the public on a searchable Web site," McDonald wrote.
The state legislation unanimously passed both the House and Senate. The state database currently is available through the Budget and Management section of the state's Web site.
For Janis Sartucci, an outspoken member of the Parents Coalition, the transparency bill is about more accountability for the school system.
"Because we don't know what's being purchased, we need another avenue to find out how our tax dollars are being spent," Sartucci said. "It's very important to make sure all of our dollars are being spent wisely."
Given the economy, she added, "you want to make sure you're getting the best value for your dollar."
The delegation's County Affairs Committee will hold a work session on Carr's bill at 9 a.m. Thursday.