Inspector General Report: Baltimore County School Board broke state law, skirted spending rules

BALTIMORE, MD—The Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education (OIGE) has released a report indicating that the Baltimore County Board of Education violated state law when it hired outside legal counsel.  The board also structured spending transactions so as to skirt its own spending rules.

The Inspector General initiated an investigation based on a complaint alleging members of the Baltimore County School Board had violated Maryland education law and county code pertaining to the expenditure of funds to obtain legal services. The complaint further alleged members of the board continued this practice knowing they were in violation of state and county law and established BCPS procurement practices.

Maryland law states that all counties, except for Baltimore County, may retain counsel. An exception to the law is allowed only if the board is involved in a dispute with the Baltimore County government.

Prior to 2018, the Baltimore County Public Schools – Law Office received funding from the Baltimore County government to cover the cost associated with legal services afforded to the Board of Education. These funds were used by the Law Office to provide an attorney, outside of the law office, and assigned to the Board of Education as a legal advisor.

This practice changed when then-Board chair Kathleen Causey believed there was a conflict of interest due to concerns associated with the former BCPS superintendent’s administration. The Office of the Inspector General was advised that the School Board wanted an attorney who was not connected with the prior administration.

The investigation showed that on January 22, 2019, Causey made a motion to the full board to retain the legal services of Columbia-based Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scheer, LLP (CKBBS) for the sole purpose of assisting in the BCPS search for a new Superintendent. The motion presented by Causey was passed by the board.  The Inspector General’s office confirmed an exception was granted as to the legal contract associated with the new superintended search.

During this same period, the Board of Education had been using the Law Firm of Andy Nussbaum, Esq. for legal services pertaining to school board matters. Our investigation found that Nussbaum had been serving as the board’s primary attorney since 2008. The School Board could not provide supporting documentation indicating the board had contacted or obtain permission from the Baltimore County attorney to obtain outside counsel. Additionally, BCPS could not provide documentation indicating the board or BCPS had announced, posted, or advertised a Request for Proposal to obtain legal services.

In two separate audit findings from BCPS Office of Internal Audit, the auditors found that the Board of Education exceeded their budget for legal expenditures in both fiscal years (FY) FY19 and FY20. Through interviews, the OIGE learned some members attribute this to the costly Superintendent search and some to the lengthy School Board meetings where an attorney from CKBBS is present and compensated at an hourly rate of $300. This rate is in contrast to Nussbaum’s $225 per hour. The Office of the Inspector General determined only a few instances where both CKBBS and Nussbaum were billed during concurrent periods.

The internal audit also revealed in FY19, the projected expenditures for contracted services was submitted at $18,000, but the total expenditures for this category was approximately $92,000. This is attributed in large part to the Superintendent search where both CKBBS and the hiring firm Ray & Associates were engaged by the School Board. CKBBS was paid approximately $25,000 and Ray & Associates approximately $52,000. Overall, in FY19, the Board of Educartion’s contracted expenditures totaled $191,286.70 and overspent the projected $128,235 budget by $63,051.

Investigators were able to determine that during the time period of the legal services agreement with CKBBS (January 2020 to July 2020), an increase of $49,999 was made to the legal services purchase order to replenish those funds already expended. This proposed increase would “structure” the funding source as a small procurement and avoid the need for the BOE from publishing a RFP for legal services. The BCPS – Division of Business Services policy states: “The threshold for requiring bids is $50,000 or more – single item or system-wide annual needs. All purchases that meet or exceed $50,000 (not available under existing BCPS, county, or state contracts) are formally bid. The Office of Purchasing issues bids for all goods or services in accordance with Maryland law.”

“Since 2018, the new hybrid-elected Board has diligently sought legal guidance from the school system, and attorneys hired by the school system, on how to properly procure independent legal services for Board representation, outside of the school system,” current Board chair Julie Henn told “More recently, we have sought such guidance from the County Attorney and I am appreciative of County Government’s support and assistance.”

”I am thankful for having had the opportunity to participate in this investigation and appreciate the efforts of Mr. Henry and staff in The Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education,” Henn added. “The report raises even more questions and I look forward to conversations with County and State authorities, Board colleagues, and the BCPS Superintendent so that we may close gaps in our laws, policies, and procedures to provide precise direction for future boards.”

The full report from the Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education is available online here.

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