- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

Prince George's County, Md., school board members charged custom furniture, a trip to Disney World and even alcohol on their school credit cards over the past two years, according to expense reports obtained by The Washington Times.
An examination of members' expense accounts for fiscal 1999 and the first three months of 2000 shows that three of the nine on the board went over their annual personal budgets of $9,800 one by nearly double.
Among the charges by members the only ones in Maryland with personal charge cards were:
$3,360 for custom-fit office furniture for the home office of Catherine Smith.
$7,800 for newsletters by Marilyn Bland the member who spent nearly double her budget sent out to constituents a few days before March's primary elections in which she was a contestant.
$2,000 for a trip south to an unnamed conference that included a stop in Disney World and Mississippi for Mrs. Bland and family.
$150 in donations by Mrs. Bland to Potomac High School, a school outside her district but inside the district of her employer, County Council member Isaac Gourdine.
$61 for beer and wine from Hampton Liquors for a board Christmas party paid for by Ken Johnson.
A review of the expense reports also shows excessive dining and travel costs, and charges such as expensive schedule planners none of which has ever been subjected to oversight, according to school and state officials.
School board members shopped at the upscale office supply store Franklin Covey and took a number of trips for conferences including three to Ocean City in six months last year. Other conference expenses included trips to San Francisco, New Orleans, Tennessee, Denver and Florida.
Meals often averaged $25 to $50 per person, often at expensive restaurants such as Jerry's Seafood or Phillip's Flagship in the District of Columbia. Restaurant expenses during conferences sometimes topped $100 per person.
The controversy over members' expenditures prompted the board to adopt a stricter spending policy for expense accounts in April.
The review of the former policy which limited expenses to nothing more specific than "board-related business also illustrates a lack of oversight governing expenditures by members.
Expenses of school board members, schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts and her staff and principals currently are being examined in an audit expected to be finished June 30. But already, state officials who pushed for the review are outraged by what they say is gross mismanagement.
"The question is, why aren't they held to the limit they have to spend?" asked state Delegate James Hubbard, Prince George's County Democrat, and the legislature's liaison to the school system.
The audit comes at a time when one school board member Mrs. Bland of District 9 has proposed increasing personal budgets by $6,000.
Said Mr. Hubbard: "It was ridiculous that they would even consider upping their expense limit. They have already gone way beyond what expense accounts are supposed to be for that doesn't include liquor, laptops or expensive dinners."
Of all the board members, Mrs. Bland has come under the most scrutiny, overrunning her account by almost $4,000 this year. Her expenses from the 1998-99 school year are also being examined, particularly for a trip she took in August 1998 to Florida, county officials said.
According to credit-card statements, Mrs. Bland rented a car from Alamo for $819 and drove to Buena Vista, Fla., where she stayed in a hotel, billing the school board for $829. Afterward, she drove to Mississippi, through South Carolina and back to Prince George's County.
The credit-card statements did not reflect a registration fee for a conference.
Mrs. Bland was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Other board members yesterday defended the use of their personal accounts and offered explanations for some expenditures. Some said the lack of clear policies leaves them in the dark.
"Members managed their own accounts," said school board member Doyle Neimann, District 3. "We have never been questioned. There should be accountability. But the prior policies have been haphazard at best."
Others said there are easy ways to save money.
"I don't know why we always have dinner meetings," said board member Angie Como, District 1. "We can discuss things over the phone."
Explaining her purchase of office furniture for her home office, Mrs. Smith said she was told she had almost $10,000 in her account and to "go ahead and get" what she needed. That included a desk, hutch, computer unit and phones for her home office, totaling almost $3,700.
"I wouldn't have bought the office furniture if I hadn't been told I could buy it back after I left the board at discounted prices," she said. "I intend to have it the rest of my life. It is made to fit my office, not the school system. I guess we just need to get clarity regarding the policies."
Mr. Johnson, District 6, said that as a member of the board's retreat committee, he was charged with throwing a holiday party in 1998. "I bought beer and wine for the party," he said. "It's nothing different than drinking wine with dinner."
The new policy requires receipts for expenditures, limits members to stay within a spending guideline and prohibits expenses for alcohol and tobacco and activities that could be construed as campaigning including a 45-day limit before elections for newsletter distribution.
Board members are also now required to record with whom they dine on meal expense receipts.
"Before, there wasn't really much of a policy," Mr. Johnson said. "The new policy spells things out and tightens up restrictions."
"People are definitely changing their habits and behavior after this," said Mrs. Smith. "We need to be careful when using taxpayer money."
Last month, the Board of Education hired independent audit firm Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates under pressure from state officials to examine board members' expense accounts, the entire board budget, superintendent and her staff and principals' expenses over the past four years. The initiative was prompted by suspicions that abuses in individual expense accounts are running over into the $1 million general board budget and extend beyond board members, sources said.
"No one seems to know who is in charge of the board's general budget," said Robert Callahan, a board member from District 5 and budget chairman. "Members submit their requests and were hardly ever denied."
The impetus for the audit began in March after Mr. Callahan accused Mrs. Bland of paying for a $10,000 education forum and $7,800 newsletter with unauthorized expense funds, while the board was transferring $7,000 more into her overdrawn account.
"There has been a permissive attitude about spending in the system in general," said Mrs. Como, board vice chairman. "I was worried about mine until I saw what the others had spent. This is going to be uncomfortable but is necessary and better in the long run."
Mr. Hubbard said elected officials should not have credit cards and that the issue will be one looked at more closely by the state.
"Things like this really put a damper on our efforts in Annapolis. If we want the state to take over, we will continue to keep the reins loose over the school system," he said.

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