The practice of having a representative from the Frederick County Board of Commissioners as a liaison to the county board of education has mainly been confined to attending board meetings, not taking a role in routine school business.
But the increased involvement of Commissioner Billy Shreve (R) in school board discussions and what has been called his unprecedented participation in a recent school board committee meeting, has led some observers and school officials to question if it’s time to define the limits and function of the liaison’s position.
“The Board of Education was elected by the citizens to manage Frederick County Public Schools fiscally,” said Janice Spiegel, former president of the PTA Council of Frederick County, who is concerned that Shreve’s close involvement as a liaison is starting to influence the decisions of the school board. “I don’t think that the county commissioners need to inject themselves into that process.”
Spiegel’s specific concerns go back to the school board’s June 1 facilities and finance committee meeting, which Shreve attended in his capacity as liaison. He was invited to the meeting by school board member James “Jimmy” Reeder, Jr. and he actively participated in the discussion.
What troubled Spiegel was that Shreve’s participation and comments on budget transfers appear to have influenced the decision making of committee members.
Shreve acknowledged that the current board of county commissioners may be more involved in the operations of the school system than its predecessors, but he saw nothing wrong with that.
“This board is more concerned about the fiscal issues of the county,” he said. “We are good stewards of the taxpayers’ money and it is because we do our homework.”
School board committee meetings are open to any member of the public, but the school board has never had the liaison participate in them in an official capacity, said Spiegel who has been involved in the school system for more than 15 years.
Years ago, school board members declined a request from commissioner liaison Mike Cady to participate in the board’s committee meetings.
“If that is changing then we all need to know that that’s changing,” said Spiegel who urged the school board last week to discuss at a public meeting the liaison’s role.
Shreve however, did not think he overstepped the boundaries of his position by participating and making comments at the committee meeting. He said the meeting was conducted among such a small group that even members of the public would have had an opportunity to weigh in.
Shreve said the gathering was an educational opportunity for him and thinks the issues discussed by the facilities and finance committee should be discussed by the entire school board and not just by the three members assigned to the committee.
School board member Jean Smith said it’s important to remember that although the school board gets part of its funding from the county, it is not a county agency or department.
“In the last year and a half, the liaisons have really inserted themselves into our meetings,” Smith said.
Since he became a liaison to the school board this year, Shreve has often interrupted meetings to request additional information on different school board practices as well as on items on the school board’s consent agenda. Although school officials said they have no problem providing information, they have asked Shreve to come up with questions before the board’s public meetings so staff can sufficiently provide background information.
“What people forget is that we are not a committee of the commissioners,” Smith said. “We answer to the state department of education.”
According to former long-time school board member Michael Schaden, the practice of having a commissioners’ liaison has been in existence for decades in Frederick County, most likely initiated as a courtesy from the school board to the commissioners.
The commissioners also offer similar opportunities for school board members, who can serve as liaisons to different county bodies, such as the internal audit authority, said Schaden, adding that liaisons have to be careful not to overstep the boundaries of that position.
“The liaison’s job is to listen and ask questions, not to influence the discussion,” Schaden said.
For now, school officials have not decided when they want to discuss the liaison role, but school board president Angie Fish agreed it would benefit the entire board to discuss what is appropriate involvement.
“I think it’s important to define those boundaries,” Fish said.
John Woolums, director of governmental relations at the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said there’s no single formula that works statewide and could not say how many of the state’s school boards have a liaison from their county government body.
“It is fully in the prerogative of the board of education to be as inclusive in their processes as they want.” he said. “Good will needs to be created between the county government and the school boards.”
But county government officials also have to recognize that while they do provide funding for school systems, they have no authority over a school board’s decisions, he said.