- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

Each of the nine members of the Prince George's County school board has a privilege none of their counterparts in suburban Maryland has. Each is given a Mastercard with a $9,800 limit each year to cover travel, telephone calls, printing and other official expenses. Some members have abused those privileges.

By their own admission they routinely overspend their allotments, others waste tax dollars on lavish meals and booze. Still others, like Marilyn Bland, who represents the Clinton area, charge questionable expenses, such as a $2,000 trip, including rental car, to an unnamed conference and a stop in Disney World. The Washington Times' readers are aware of this unchecked spending because reporter Jabeen Bhatti not only broke the story about the board's wasteful expenditures, but got her hands on their credit card bills. Only now is the school board's $1 million budget undergoing an audit.

The board hired an independent auditing firm Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates after state lawmakers and state education officials suggested it do so. At first the board tried to be slick, telling state officials they would have the school system's internal auditor go over the books. But the state stood firm, and rightly so.

Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, Prince George's County Democrat, and others were particularly concerned about overspending by Mrs. Bland and three other board members. Mrs. Bland spent $7,800 on newsletters a few days before the March primaries in which she was a contestant. In November, she spent nearly $10,000 on an all-day forum for parents outside her district. Most of that money, nearly $6,000, was for catering. Those two expenditures alone meant Mrs. Bland had spent nearly double her allotted $9,800. School board officials learned of the overspending after a budget official rejected Mrs. Bland's request for reimbursement because of prior overspending.

The scope of the outside audit, which is expected to be completed by June 30, will cover the spending habits of the board, superintendents, staff and principals over the past four years. Initially, the board was only going to audit its own budget, but members changed their minds in May after Ms. Bhatti's articles.

Indeed, policy merely required board members spend on board-related matters and stay within their annual limit. "There were no per diem guidelines or restrictions on what could be charged," Ms. Bhatti wrote in a June 6 follow up that detailed the superintendent's expenditures. "And the limits were haphazardly enforced, county school officials said."

Things are supposed to be different now that the board has toughened its spending policies to require receipts. It also limits the dollar amount on certain reimbursements, ends reimbursements on tobacco and alcohol, restricts the distribution of newsletters to 45 days prior to an election, and requires officials to name the parties they wine and dine. Those are reasonable requirements after all it is public money they are spending.

Nonetheless, the real monetary damage is done. Lack of respect for taxpayer dollars is that this is. Perhaps other school systems in the Washington area could stand a closer look at their expenses as well.

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