- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000

The head of the state-appointed panel monitoring school reform has chastised the Prince George's County, Md., school board for moving to hire an executive director and possibly a secretary in the midst of a spending audit.
Artis Hampshire-Cowan, chairman of the Management Oversight Panel, said she was "disturbed" by the proposal.
"At this point, having not received a briefing on the board's intentions, it is the panel's strong feeling that a proper basis for such a hiring has not been established," she wrote in a June 2 letter to school board Chairman James Henderson, who represents District 1. "In addition, the panel has a legislative mandate to review the impact of major personnel decisions."
The school board, under scrutiny for business expenditures, is seeking to hire an executive director at a minimum $70,000 salary and already has advertised the position.
"We need someone in charge of everything, a professional-level person to oversee the entire board office," said Robert Callahan, District 5. "That person would also be able to ask policy questions. The current staff is not equipped or qualified to do so."
The board office has five employees: an office manager, whose salary is $55,000 plus a $4,000 annual bonus; and four secretaries, whose salaries range from $35,000 to $49,000, school officials said. All five receive time-and-a-half pay for overtime work, with the secretaries at their high step grades as the only ones in the school system receiving it.
Some board officials said the move for a director comes just in time, in light of the disorganization in the board office.
"No one seems to know the answers to the questions regarding our expenses," said Angie Como, District 1. "It's a big mess there."
The initiative is one more step the board is taking to clean house after irregular spending practices first came to light two months ago and led to an expense audit of school board members as well as of Superintendent Iris Metts and her staff.
A preliminary examination of individual expense accounts shows some board members have exceeded their $9,800 annual budgets by making excessive charges for dining, travel and office supplies, according to expense records. None of the charges was 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. June 30 is the deadline for completion of the audit.
Since the issue came to light, the board has created an ethics panel and has approved a new, more restrictive spending policy. It calls for expense accounts requiring receipts, limiting members to stay within set dollar limits, and prohibiting expenses for alcohol, tobacco and activities that could be construed as campaigning including a restriction on distribution of newsletters to not less than 45 days before elections.
Board members also are required to write on expenses meal receipts the names of persons with whom they dine, and must stay within county limits of $6 for breakfast, $12 for lunch and $20 for dinner.
Now board members are hoping to ensure that hiring a director will help streamline procedure as in other counties, such as Montgomery.
The Montgomery County school board has a staff of eight: a staff director, a staff assistant for organization and finance, an ombudsman, a legal aide and four secretaries.
"There are three to four levels of scrutiny here, a lot of hoops to go through," said Roland Ikheloa, the staff assistant for organization and finance.
"Everything has to have a receipt and get approved. And there have been instances where board members have been told that certain expenses weren't acceptable and they would have to reimburse the system."
Mr. Ikheloa also said the board budget of $784,000, less than the Prince George's board budget of $1 million, does not allow for individual board member expense accounts.
And while Montgomery board members go to an average of two conferences annually, they don't attend the Maryland Municipal League Conference in Ocean City every June, as most Prince George's school board members do.
"Where can we find out about that?" Mr. Ikheloa asked jokingly.


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