- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

A policy committee of the Prince George's County school board has presented guidelines for the proper use of public funds in the wake of complaints last year that some board members misused their expense accounts to purchase alcohol and individual gifts as well as for donations to schools.
"No alcoholic beverages will be purchased with public funds," the draft manual says. "Donations are not a proper use of Board expense money … . The worthiness of the cause is irrelevant."
Several recommendations in the guidelines manual are based on the February report of an ethics panel and reflect inappropriate uses of board members' expense accounts auditors found last year.
The manual, which represents the latest attempt to regulate board spending, was presented for a vote by three members of the policy committee at last week's school board meeting.
But the board, which often has been accused of dragging its feet when its expenses come under scrutiny, put off adopting the guidelines until the next regular meeting in August.
Some members said they needed more time to reconcile some recommendations with the board's policies.
"There is now a conflict between the recommendations and the board's policies," said board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson, who cited as an example discrepancies in in-town travel guidelines.
He said the committee would correct those differences "very shortly," and described the recommendations of the ethics panel as "good," adding that the board already had adopted some of them.
But policy committee members accused the rest of the board of being too slow to finalize the guidelines.
Policy committee member Angie Como, District 1, said she had distributed copies of the manual to board members weeks ago, but had only received comments from a couple of members.
"I would've liked to see them approve it," Miss Como said about last week's deferral vote. She said so far the board's action on the issue had been "slow."
She also said she found the ethics panel recommendations to be "fair" and "comprehensive" and had incorporated all of them into the committee's guidelines.
The audit that led to the guidelines manual was commissioned last year by the school board under pressure from the state. Auditors found that board members had charged inappropriate items to their accounts and, in some cases, had overrun their expense limit of $9,800.
An audit last year found board member Cathy Smith, District 4, charged $3,360 for customized furniture for her home office; a trip to Disney World and $7,800 for newsletters to her constituents charged by member Marilynn Bland, District 9; and $119 for alcohol charged by Mr. Johnson, among others.
Some board members have since returned the money, but others have yet to do so or have refused to return it, saying they did nothing wrong.
County activists say the board needs to quickly accept the recommendations in order to save face, especially after the bitter dispute was resolved last week over bonuses given to three administration officials.
"The board essentially needs something that hard to restore the impression that they are serious," said parent activist Donna Hathaway Beck.
"There is nothing outrageous in those recommendations … it is just an attempt to restore faith in the community," she said.

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