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Md. ombudsman promises interim report on Howard County schools’ access

1a Kershner, LisaBPS

Lisa A. Kershsner

An interim report on Howard County Public Schools’ compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act could come in a few weeks, according to the state’s public access ombudsman.

News of the report came as Lisa A. Kershner updated members of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Legislative Information, Technology and Open Government.

“This project, I think it is fair to say, is going to take up a significant part of my time over the coming six to eight weeks,” Kershner told the committee on Wednesday. “It will end at eight weeks because that is when the report is due to be published.”

Kershner was not available for comment, but during her discussion with lawmakers she declined to specify exactly what will be in the interim report, which she is not required to file.

Kershner’s comments were the first she had made to legislators who created her position in 2015.

The Howard County schools report is expected to contain, at a minimum, a starter list of potential findings that will provide some indication into where the larger report is going when it is delivered to the legislature and the public in December.

“I feel like I am somewhat of an auditor,” said Kershner. “I’m somewhat of a Public Information Act auditor that is coming in to review compliance by this one entity over a defined historical period. That has required me to interact with the principals in that organization, the executives management, not only its present employees but past employees in that role.”

Kershner was assigned the task after a grassroots uprising in Howard County gave rise to a bipartisan effort among that county’s legislators to pass a law demanding the audit of the schools this spring.

It is a role that was not part of Kershner’s original mandate when her position was created in 2015. Initially, lawmakers saw the job as a way to mediate disputes between individuals seeking public information and government agencies, some of which are increasingly seen by the public as an impediment to access.

Kershner said that in her added role she has learned a “tremendous amount about that system” and provided feedback to school officials and community activists who “have been most active in interacting with my project.”

But there have also been some drawbacks.

“The rub of it is, however, apart from taking my time away from actual mediations, it has in many ways precluded me from handling specific mediation matters involving that (Howard County) school system simply because the matters straddled both my auditor realm and my mediator realm,” said Kershner, adding that lawmakers interested in continuing compliance monitoring might want to consider additional staffing.

“This is something that is well worth looking at but I would suggest there are many different models for how compliance modeling can be done, by what mechanisms, by whom and so forth,” Kershner said.

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