- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Prince George's County, Md., school board member Marilyn Bland, under fire for questionable use of a county credit card for a trip to Disney World, for example has decided the best defense is an biting offensive.

The District 9 board member says the "witch hunt" against her regarding her expenses is a "racist and sexist" conspiracy fueled by the media and her critics on the school board.

"Running to the media to politically lynch a colleague has become more important than standing up for the needs of our children," she said at the board's meeting last week. "I will continue to do what's right regardless of the racist and sexist notions. The sad fact is, these petty issues would never be given this much attention in a predominantly white school district."

Mrs. Bland's defense of school board expenses comes amid ringing criticism from state and county officials and residents over what many see as wasteful and inappropriate spending practices.

Over the past few weeks, some officials have called for a criminal investigation, while others have asked that board members reimburse the county. At political fund-raisers, community meetings and conferences, school board expenses are a hot topic.

"A number of people at the [Maryland Municipal League] conference [this week] asked me about it," said board member Robert Callahan, District 5. "Most people said they didn't care if it was about $10 or $10,000. The issue was the undermining of public faith in the board."

Two weeks ago, The Washington Times examined individual expense accounts and found that some board members exceeded their $9,800 annual budgets with excessive charges for dining, travel and office supplies over the past two years. None of the charges were subject to oversight.

Under pressure from state officials, the county school board last month hired an independent auditing firm to examine the expense accounts over the past four years of board members, the superintendent and the superintendent's staff. The audit is due June 30.

Since the issue ignited, the board also approved a more restrictive policy for expense accounts, instituted an ethics panel and began to discuss hiring an executive director to manage the board office.

While a number of board members are being scrutinized for making purchases such as furniture or alcohol, it is Mrs. Bland whom most school officials blame for the ruckus and the member who is most unrepentant, officials say.

"Most of the board members see Marilyn as the real problem," said one board member, who declined to be named. "She is abusing her position, then running her mouth defending it. She's dragging us all through the mud."

During her five-minute solo at last week's board meeting, the former Air Force nurse defended her record, accused officials of politically motivated "character assassinations," and explained away individual charges. She said it was "tough to be female and black in this society."

"Suddenly, a conference to Orlando immediately becomes a family trip to Disneyland," she said, holding up a Minnie Mouse doll. "There are no records to show a single nickel was spent at the amusement park."

"We all make mistakes from time to time. It's part of the political process," she added. "But it is totally unfair to take trivial issues and blow them out of proportion."

Afterward, board Chairman James Henderson, District 4, surprised the board and the audience by apologizing for her comments.

Mrs. Bland was unavailable for comment.

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