Maryland Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. appears to be beating the political drum louder this legislative session with nearly eight months still to go till the Nov. 6 general election – all while preaching the gospel of “bipartisanship.”
A day after lashing out at the Democrat-controlled General Assembly for failing to act fast enough on his school safety legislation introduced just two weeks ago, Hogan released a $2.6 million supplemental budget Wednesday to pay for new audits and state oversight of local school spending and operations.
The “accountability” proposal by Hogan appears to target at least one possible opponent in the governor’s re-election bid, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat who has been plagued by ongoing problems in his county’s schools system.
The supplemental budget proposal, Hogan’s second this year, would set aside $1.5 million for an audit of the Prince George’s County schools and other local jurisdictions, and create a new Education Monitoring Unit and Office of Compliance and Oversight within the Maryland State Department of Education, at a cost of $1.1 million.
The budget request to fund a second audit of Prince George’s County Schools in the last year was the result of the State Board of Education voting “unanimously on Tuesday to conduct the additional review,” according to an accompanying statement from Hogan’s press office.
The second audit would be a follow-up to one released in November that “yielded troubling revelations of grade changes and thousands of students graduating without having fulfilled graduation requirements,” the statement read.
The independent audit, ordered last June by the board at Hogan’s request, found that in the two previous years, grades for nearly 5,500 students were changed just days before graduation. The audit also found that documentation for many of the last-minute changes was missing and that dozens of students were ineligible to graduate.
But apparently it was Kevin M. Maxwell, chief executive officer of the Prince George’s County Public Schools, who had asked the state board for a second audit of the schools, said John L. White, spokesman for the district.
“Dr. Maxwell suggested a second audit to make sure everything was how it should be,” White said.
In a Feb. 28 news conference, Hogan called for Baker to fire Maxwell — the executive’s handpicked schools CEO, first appointed in 2013 — because of the grading scandal. At the time, Baker waved off the governor’s remarks, dismissing them as “purely political.”
A month earlier, Hogan talked about the grading scandal in Prince George’s County schools at another news conference, saying, “I mean, some of this is criminal behavior, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”
Those remarks aside, there have been no allegations of criminal behavior resulting from the audit.
After the Prince George’s audit, any remaining balance from the $1.5 million could be used for additional audits of local jurisdictions “as deemed necessary by the State Board,” the statement Wednesday from Hogan’s office on the supplemental budget read.
“This funding will allow MSDE and the State Board of Education to evaluate and investigate allegations of misconduct and corruption in local school systems, including conducting independent audits where appropriate,” according to the statement.
“The proposed budget allocation comes in the wake of multiple accountability and ethical problems reported in several public school systems across the state,” the statement read.
That money could very well find its way to audits of school systems in Baltimore County and Baltimore City – Hogan targets in the past – both of which have been plagued with persistent problems.
Those jurisdictions are led by Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz, another Democrat running for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in the June 26 primary election and who could face Hogan in the fall, and Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who has tangled with the governor over a number of matters, including school funding.
“Baltimore County and Baltimore City are the only two jurisdictions in the state who can’t seem to get the most basic things done for their kids, so we’re going to push our multiple accountability measures,” Hogan said at a Jan. 25 press conference. “The state, unfortunately now, we provide all the money, most of the money, and then we don’t have any real authority. It’s, these are being done by the local school boards, and we’re having some real problems.”
Kamenetz also a target
Earlier this month the former Baltimore County school Superintendent S. Dallas Dance pleaded guilty in circuit court to four counts of perjury for failing to disclose more than $145,000 he was paid as a consultant, including payments from a company he assisted in getting a no-bid contract with the district.
Additionally, interim school Superintendent Verletta White, who replaced Dance, failed to report roughly $12,000 in income she received as a consultant to an education technology company during the time she was the district’s chief academic officer, The Sun of Baltimore reported. White, who amended her ethics disclosure forms, has not been charged with any crime.
“I’m outraged at the discovery that the previous superintendent was, you know, apparently taking bribes and not disclosing his money and making decisions with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money,” Hogan said at the Jan. 25 press conference.
“It also concerns me that his deputy, who’s also been promoted to the current superintendent of schools, was also taking money from the same people and also not disclosing it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the governor said of Kamenetz: “The county executive continues to say he supports her.”
In Baltimore City, during a cold snap in January, scores of public schools had heating problems when the buildings’ ancient boilers and furnaces broke down. The problems led to, in some cases, burst pipes, collapsed ceilings and building closures, but mostly to many students having to wear coats inside classrooms where temperatures dipped to 40 degrees.
Shivering children, outraged parents, finger-pointing from both sides and charges of school mismanagement of state maintenance funds drew the attention of the national press.
“We’ve got this Baltimore City crisis where we give them, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars, and we tell them, you’ve got to focus on your HVAC problem, and we give them the money for it, and they mismanage the money and lose it and never fix the heat and everything’s a problem,” Hogan said during his Jan, 25 news conference.
Ultimately, temporary repairs were made, additional state money was pledged and the weather warmed up.
There appears, however, to have been no thaw in relations between Hogan and Pugh.
According to the Hogan press office statement Wednesday on the supplemental budget, the request to fund the new Office of Compliance and Oversight came in a letter to the governor from State Board of Education President Andrew R. Smarick, “to ensure local school systems are compliant with state law and monitor school systems in need of corrective action.”
Smarick was appointed to the panel by Hogan in 2015.
The statement from the governor’s office continues with further explanation from State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, another Hogan appointee.
“This funding will enable the Maryland State Department of Education to better perform the critically important role of ensuring that every school in our state is held to the highest possible standards,” Salmon is quoted as saying.
Slow legislative pace irks governor
Hogan’s meager $2.5 million supplemental request would leave another $502 million in unappropriated money in state coffers, mostly owing to an unexpected windfall this year from the federal tax legislation in December.
The governor’s $44.4 billion budget, which the Maryland Senate has shaped into its own $44.5 billion spending plan over the last two months, is scheduled to be taken up by the House of Delegates this week.
But the machinations of the Maryland General Assembly do not seem to move quickly enough for Hogan, who frequently invokes the importance of “bipartisanship” among state leaders.
The governor registered his displeasure, inexplicably, during a televised press conference Tuesday not far from the scene of a school shooting in St. Mary’s County, where a 17-year-old student at Great Mills High School shot and wounded two others before he being killed at the scene.
In the middle of Hogan’s calm and collected call for “more than prayers” for school children of the state, he suddenly laid into the legislature.
“We’ve got one of the most aggressive school safety plans in America that we introduced several weeks ago as emergency legislation in Annapolis, and the legislature’s failed to take action on it,” he said.
“We’re going to try and get something done in Annapolis,” he continued. “We’ve only got less than three weeks left in the legislative session, and to me it’s outrageous that we haven’t taken action yet on something so important as school safety.”
The simple fact was that the bills — SB 1257 and HB 1816 (the Safe Schools Act of 2018) — were introduced less than two weeks earlier, March 7, by the presiding officers for the administration.
In fact, Hogan’s legislation was introduced three weeks after the Feb. 14 mass shooting that left 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., dead, and generated the governor’s action. That was also eight days after the deadline for introducing legislation without having to go to Rules committees.
Additionally, the Senate already had a committee hearing on the bill last week, and the House has one scheduled Thursday.
Democratic legislators fumed.
“It is unfortunate that while we are negotiating in good faith with his staff — as recently as yesterday — on this legislation that the Governor chose the site of a tragedy to criticize the legislature for school safety issues,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.
Busch’s comments were echoed – albeit less civilly – by many other Democrats.