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—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Gov. Larry Hogan announced during a press conference in Annapolis this week, a series of legislative and administrative initiatives he says are aimed at improving accountability in public school systems across Maryland.
Among them, the governor proposed a State Education Department Investigator General (IG) who would be charged with “investigating complaints of unethical, unprofessional, or illegal conduct relating to procurement, education assets, graduation requirements, grading, education facilities, and school budgets.”
While there has been some opposition to Hogan’s proposal for an IG, Dr. Michele Guyton, a child advocate and member of the Maryland State Board of Education, says Hogan’s proposal for the special investigator would be helpful to the State Board.
“There hasn’t been an investigative arm in the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and I think that it has been to our detriment,” Guyton told The Baltimore Post.
While Dr. Guyton does not speak on behalf of the State Board, she agreed to be interviewed about her personal views on the need for an IG, which follow the governor’s announcement.
Introducing the Accountability in Education Act of 2018, Governor Hogan said at the Jan. 8th press conference, “Parents, students and teachers are rightfully outraged that our children are being cheated in places like Baltimore County, Howard County, Prince George’s County, Washington County, Montgomery County, Baltimore City and other jurisdictions across the state. And after repeated allegations of wrongdoing, corruption and exploitation, citizens are losing confidence in the leadership of our local education systems.”
Baltimore County Public Schools made national headlines last fall when New York Times and Baltimore Sun investigations questioned the travel, vendor relationships and technology spending of previous superintendent, Dr. S. Dallas Dance, related to the school system’s controversial laptop-for-every-child, S.T.A.T. program. Howard County Public Schools has been criticized for ongoing mold issues, and both Prince George’s County and Baltimore City public schools have been under fire for allegations of grade-changing.
The governor’s announcement included measures to fix failing schools and provide funding for emergency heating repairs for Baltimore City Public Schools, along with the IG position which he said would be an independent unit within the Maryland State Department of Education and would be selected by a commission whose members would be chosen by the Senate President, Speaker of the House, and governor’s office.
Dr. Michele Guyton, a Democrat and longtime children’s advocate, is supportive of the Republican governor’s call for an Investigator General. The Board member was recommended for the position by State Senator Jim Brochin, a Democrat, and was appointed by Governor Hogan in 2015.
But Dr. Guyton says she has not always been aligned with the governor’s views on issues, yet when it comes to the proposal for an IG, the education advocate sees that the current lack of investigative capabilities has made the State Board’s ability to obtain important information sometimes challenging.
In an interview with Dr. Guyton, The Baltimore Post focused solely on Gov. Hogan’s proposal for an IG. Dr. Guyton does not represent the State Board and her views expressed in this interview are her own.
Due to the length of the interview – which took about 30 minutes – parts of the discussion have been edited for brevity and clarity.
BP: In your view, is there a need for a State Education Department Investigator General (IG) position?
MG: I have not read the entirety of the proposed legislation, nor has anyone, because I think they are still in the process of working out the details. Without the details, it’s hard to speak to the specifics of that, but really at first glance, I am supportive of the idea because I feel that anything that we can have help us become more responsive to the needs of the public is a good thing. So I would be supportive of it. There hasn’t been an investigative arm in the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and I think that it has been to our detriment.
BP: Have issues arisen while on the Board, that you can speak to, when it became obvious that an IG would be helpful in certain circumstances?
MG: I personally feel that it would help the Board perform its job of oversight better. I think given the tools that we have had in the department, we certainly do what we can. But having the IG would help the Board do that more thoroughly and in a timelier manner and be more responsive. I can’t speak to particular cases, but I think some people who bring information to MSDE are told that it can’t be pursued because we don’t have an “investigative arm” — and that’s a problem.
BP: What’s the process now when there is a problem? Does it come straight to you/the board? Does it come straight to the law office first? What is the process in place right now when issues are brought to the State Board with a request for an audit, for instance?
MG: There are many, many different avenues. A lot of people go straight to the Board office and send information to all the members of the Board. Often people will just call the board member in their area or someone they know who is involved in a certain issue. Most of what we address, particularly in the decision-making realm which I think we are discussing here, comes up through the appeals system from the Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to the State Board. (LEAs are local school districts.) In many cases an appellant has taken a problem to the local Board, were not satisfied with the outcome, maybe have taken it to an administrative law judge or to mediation, and then it comes to the State Board because they are still dissatisfied. When concerns arise through other means, the Board attempts to respond to those as it is able.
BP: And that would be different than something like fraud, waste or abuse that an IG is being proposed to handle? Which department currently handles fraud, waste and abuse?
MG: I can’t really answer that because I think that in the instances like with the Prince George’s County audit – I’ll just use this as an example – and the Baltimore County audit – often they come directly to the State Board. I believe that when we get a certain number of complaints that really gets my attention. But if there are only two or three of those (complaints), they may not get a hold of attention. I always read, consider and try to respond to anything that is sent to me by the public. I am always also happy to meet with concerned citizens when I am able. If 300 people show up – that is just a random example – with the same issue, then I do think that the state department and board do try and take a look to see if we can do anything, within the current limitations of our oversight capabilities. But if it’s a situation that needs investigation, then we are limited. So, that’s where the IG would come in.
BP: What’s the difference between an audit and an investigation?
MG: I think because we don’t know what the governor has in mind with this legislation, we don’t really know what the line is, to be honest.
BP: What is the current oversight that the state board has? What is the function of the state board, relative to the LEAs?
MG: We do have oversight responsibilities, by law. We are tasked by statute to be the “voice of the public in public education.” I take that to heart. The relationship with the Local Education Agencies is always a complicated one because Maryland does try to respect the autonomy – as much as possible – of the local educators, the local agencies. And that is a tradition in Maryland and it’s a way people believe it’s worked best for Maryland over the years. There may be some that adhere to that very, very strictly and hesitate to get involved. I tend to believe that I’m there as a person who needs to listen to what the people in the schools have to say and I try to respond to that when I can. So, I probably lean a little further towards providing oversight when in the best interest of students, teachers, and families. Within reason, of course.
BP: Has the need for an IG – in particular – ever been brought up at the State Board before the governor’s proposal?
MG: Other than frustration that there were things that couldn’t be addressed fully because we didn’t have an investigative arm, not specifically.
BP: And in those cases, generally speaking, what happened? When you hit a dead-end when dealing with a complaint, what happened?
MG: I believe that when people bring a situation to the State Board, that usually goes through our legal department. If they find that there is something over which MSDE cannot provide oversight because we cannot investigate it, then they provide that information, I believe. I would expect that citizens are given some guidance as how to pursue their issue through other avenues. It would be my expectation. I don’t know that I would say that it’s a dead-end because I always think there’s another avenue. And I wouldn’t say that an IG is needed in order for us to do our jobs, but it would be very helpful, I think. Because I think that most board members really do care about what is going on and we want to know more than sometimes we can because we don’t have that investigative capability.
BP: So, an IG would be the one to look into the details? I have to ask you again: what is the difference between an audit and an investigation?
MG: I think there can be crossover. I don’t know that it’s black or white. For instance, the Prince George’s situation with the grades being changed. You have an outside auditor come in, sort of managed by the State and the State has oversight over evaluating that and accepting it, and making recommendations based on it. That is obviously a very clear example of an audit. They looked at the numbers, they analyzed them and they figured out what was happening. Now, in something as complicated as various and sundry issues that different people are concerned with in Baltimore County, for instance, it might lean towards more of an investigation because it’s more complicated. It’s not just necessarily one question. It might take more analysis, it might take a deeper look. But I don’t know until we really have that actual legislation written out. We don’t know the parameters of that investigative arm. As far as the power of a simple audit? In my experience they (auditors) may interview people, but interviewing people isn’t necessary the primary function of the auditor. It’s really looking at the data. I am not really an expert in this particular area.
BP: What would you say to those who see Hogan’s Accountability Act and the IG position as strictly a political issue?
MG: I can’t speak to the governor’s motivations. I think that I would just repeat what I said before that regardless of the motivation, I still think it’s a helpful move to help us get to the truth and provide more oversight in situations that may need that. I mean, do I care if it’s political? Not really. I just know that if it helps the system work better, if it helps us do our job, then I am in support of it. I don’t care where comes from. Education, in general, should not be a partisan issue. It’s about what’s best for the kids. To me, at least, it is not a partisan issue. It is about what’s best for the communities, the schools and the kids, and anything that is better for those communities. I don’t care whether it is a Democrat or Republican who proposes it. It may be strange, as a Democrat, for me to be defending the governor. Even if I may not agree with everything the administration is doing or proposing, this is not the first time the governor has shown what I believe to be authentic interest in local issues, particularly in the school system. For example, he expressed his concern at the very beginning of my Board tenure with the Carroll County School closures. He was outspoken about that. He’s been outspoken about many other educational issues throughout his tenure and I don’t see this as necessarily that different.
BP: What would you say to people who see an IG as another way to micromanage educators? Some people are interpreting this as another way to micromanage or another level of accountability measures atop other accountability measures.
MG: I don’t think so at all because I don’t see any way that the IG position can’t help educators just as much as it could help families or community members. We don’t know, again, what the position is going to look like or what the responsibilities will entail for someone in that position, but it may be helpful to teachers. If teachers have problems in the system, this might be a place for them – I would hope – that they also would be invited to take it to the IG. I would hope that it would be set up that way so that teachers – who are sometimes a little bit afraid to speak out in the school system – will have someone they can speak to about these things, without any kind of fear of retribution.
BP: Do you see this as becoming a method for some to be punitive?
MG: No, I don’t see it as a way for punitive action against teachers, or administrators or local education agencies (LEAs). I hope it will be another way to shed light on problems that we can work together to fix. I just think that, if we can all work together, to help support each other – the locals, the teachers, the students, the families and the State – then we are all going to be stronger.
BP: What would you say to those who feel the State Board has sometimes been unresponsive to concerns brought to its attention?
MG: I do hear that often and it does disappoint me that so many people seem to have lost faith that members of the State Board are concerned about the individual needs of citizens. I do feel that in the community, and I try and reassure people that that’s not the case. Because, for me, it definitely isn’t (the case). And for other board members, I believe that it definitely isn’t, although I obviously can’t speak for them. Because so much of our work really is done behind closed doors, and without a lot of fanfare, I realize that it does often seem that way. In addition, what some people don’t understand is that State Board must make judgements in accordance with a fairly strict interpretation of the law. Often what people may not feel is “fair” may still be within the law. In those cases, I have to follow the law even if I may personally feel differently about a situation. It can sometimes be tough, but that integrity is absolutely necessary. If there were an IG involved, I don’t think it would change that. But it might provide more information on which to make tough decisions.
BP: Do you think that having an IG there would – not that it’s about that – but would having an IG at the State Board level change that perception of unresponsiveness?
MG: I would hope so.
Dr. Michele Guyton is a developmental psychologist and educational advocate with three children, all of whom she says have successfully negotiated the Baltimore County Public School system despite challenges. She has served on the State Board of Education since 2015.
Dr. Guyton is considering a run for State Delegate in District 42B, but she declined to discuss that possibility during the interview.