- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

Prince George's County, Md., schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts yesterday released her expense records to two newspapers instead of the county school board, which had been asking for the documents for several weeks.

"I wanted to explain [my records] to the public first," Mrs. Metts told The Washington Times and The Washington Post yesterday. "This is an opportunity to give the public full disclosure of my expense records. It was never my intention to misinform the public or hide anything. And I did not violate my contract."

A preliminary analysis of the expense records shows the superintendent's spending to be well-documented from July 1999 to January 2000. Mrs. Metts has also remained within her allotted expense budget of $16,000 annually, spending about $4,000 in six months on conference hotels, meals and other school-related expenses, credit-card receipts show.

The expense records also include reimbursements for expenses charged to the school system mistakenly such as gasoline and a $345 plane ticket for the superintendent's husband to attend a California conference in January.

However, records from the past four months are lacking complete documentation.

School officials were unable to comment on her records but had a mixed reaction to her public release of them and her efforts to counter further finger-pointing by school board members who are under scrutiny for their spending.

"I understand why she would do that," said board member Angie Como, District 1. "There has been a distrust built over time about leaks to the press. It was a wise thing to do."

"Her big concern about us is that we go to the press, and now she is doing it herself," said board member Robert Callahan, District 5. "It doesn't seem very professional, and it's weird to think the media gets the records before we do. We're her employers."

Board Chairman James Henderson, District 2, declined to comment on the expenses because he had not yet reviewed the documents.

School board members this month accused Mrs. Metts of violating her contract after she failed to submit expense records for seven months.

The board apparently has sought Mrs. Metts' expense forms for at least three weeks. Mr. Henderson admonished Mrs. Metts in a May 11 letter for failing to submit seven months of expenses.

"I am asking that you submit your expense accounting on a monthly basis as is required in your contract," he wrote. Yesterday, Mr. Henderson said he thought Mrs. Metts "had misread the words in our contract."

The superintendent's actions further illustrate the infighting and increasing tension within the board and between the board and the superintendent since charges of improper spending came to light last week.

On Thursday, The Washington Times reported that board members had charged alcohol, custom furniture and a jaunt to Disney World among other items on their school credit cards over the past two years, according to expense reports.

Examinations of individual expense accounts show some board members exceeded their $9,800 annual budgets with excessive charges for dining, travel and office supplies, according to state school officials. None of the charges was subjected to oversight.

Under pressure from state officials, the county school board last month hired the independent auditing firm of Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates to examine the expense accounts of the board, the superintendent and staff and school principals over the past four years. The audit is expected to be completed June 30.

In addition, the board has created an ethics panel and approved a new, more restrictive spending policy. It calls for expense accounts to include receipts, sets dollar limits for certain charges and prohibits expenses for alcohol, tobacco and activities that could be construed as campaigning including a 45-day limit before elections for newsletter distribution.

Board members also are now required to include the names of the people they dine with on meal expense receipts.

The old policy only required that 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. And the limits were haphazardly enforced, county school officials said.

In an effort to downplay the issue and diffuse tension, board members agreed on Thursday to speak publicly only about their own documents, sources close to the board said.

One school board member said privately that the issue has been blown out of proportion by the superintendent's office for Mrs. Metts' own purpose.

"Whenever we start fighting with each other, she's not distracted by us," said one board member privately. "Then she can do whatever she wants."

Despite the tension, school board members and the superintendent are hoping to clear the air at a retreat later this month.

"We're talking to each other and will have people to facilitate the relationship," Mr. Henderson said. "We just haven't had clear protocols of communication. When we develop those, it will make for a better relationship."

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