- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

Prince George's County, Md., school board members quietly raised their expense account limits over the summer amid criticism and an audit of their improper charges on those accounts, documents obtained by The Washington Times show.

Maryland auditors noted expenses over four years for personal trips, campaign buttons, custom furniture and alcohol that exceeded most board members' $9,800 expense account limit.

But since fiscal 2001 began July 1, board members can spend $12,594 apiece because they authorized transferring money from the board's general travel budget to their individual accounts.

The expense account increase has come to light just before state lawmakers return to the General Assembly in Annapolis, where they are expected to consider proposals that would restructure the school board.

"It's embarrassing, to say the least," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat who represents Prince George's County. "We keep hearing new revelations about the board. We thought the decision to tear up their credit cards would make a difference. They have to adopt some tighter rules over their spending."

Other legislators said they need to force reforms on the school board.

State Delegate Howard "Pete" Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called the spending increase "dishonest" and said his panel favors restructuring the board with only at-large members.

"This is going backwards," Mr. Rawlings said. "If this increase has taken place, it is very dishonest and unfair to the public. It should have been reported earlier."

Board members defended the expense account increase as merely a shift of money already in the budget and declined to elaborate further. District 1 board member Angie Como, called the increase the "extra kitty" that became part of each board members' expense account.

As charges of misspending turned into calls for an audit last spring, board members re-established an ethics panel and considered hiring an executive director. They also created policies to govern spending, including barring expenses for alcohol and campaign-related materials, and requiring receipts for reimbursement.

With those proposals came another: increasing their expense accounts to $13,000 per member. The public roared its disapproval and state lawmakers looked on in disbelief.

Instead, the board asked the county Office of Budget and Finance to review the board's budget and the feasibility of an increase, according to board members.

The Budget Office told the panel of funds in the general budget set aside for board travel money that was used only by some board members.

Board members decided during summer executive sessions to divide those funds among themselves, resulting in a $2,794 increase for each, and approved it as part of the budget.

"We were surprised that the money even existed," one board member said privately. "We thought that conference travel came out of the $9,800."

County and state officials noted that board members never corrected public statements about the true amount of their expense accounts.

"They went to the hearings and allowed Rawlings to use the $9,800 figure and never corrected him or the newspapers or the public," said one school official who asked not to be named. "They knew they were misleading the county."

Despite their criticism, lawmakers have stopped short of asking why Prince George's was one of the few counties in the nation that has school board expense accounts. Montgomery, Howard, Fairfax, Arlington, and Loudoun counties allow school board members to be reimbursed for expenses out of a general board fund.

For example, Montgomery County has a school board budget of $784,000, compared with the Prince George's board's $1 million, and reimburses members after they submit expense requests and receipts.

A Fairfax County schools spokesman laughed at the idea of school board expense accounts, saying, "that would never go over here."

Most of the school board members have spent little of their accounts since July 1, according to expense documents obtained by The Times. A preliminary review of members' reimbursement forms and receipts from July 1 through Oct. 10 shows that most have spent less than $2,000 of their $12,594 limit.

However, District 9 board member Marilynn Bland has spent more than half her allotment during the first three months of the fiscal year about $7,000.

That includes expenses for a newsletter despite controversy earlier this year over her spending $10,000 on a 1999 academic forum and $7,800 on a February newsletter that was mailed out three days before the primary, an expense that became the impetus for the audit.

The board has asked Mrs. Bland to reimburse the school system, which she has declined to do, said District 5 board member Robert Callahan.

Mrs. Bland was unavailable for comment. Her current expenses include a $534 charge to Alamo Rent-A-Car for a rental car used to attend a three-day school board retreat in July at Rocky Gap Resort, Md.

"The good news is she didn't take [the rental car] back to Disneyland," Mr. Miller said, referring to Mrs. Bland's expenses for personal travel.

• Margie Hyslop contributed to this report.

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