Although the purchases at Potomac Middle School in Dumfries are relatively small compared with the $10 million spent each year on more than 700 credit cards in county schools, the amount of credit spending at Potomac Middle again raises questions about the county’s fraud and waste safeguards, as the audit’s release comes shortly after an embezzlement case at another Prince William school.
In that case, an initial audit resulted in a criminal embezzlement charge against an elementary school principal, who was found to have put more than $8,500 in personal charges on a school credit card. Investigators also found electronics missing from the principal’s school.
The Potomac Middle audit, which details spending from July 2009 to March 2011, found that the school exceeded its $361,000 budget by about $32,000, or close to 9 percent.
Charges included 30 separate restaurant bills totaling $14,689. Four of the meals exceeded $1,500 each; the largest restaurant charges were budgeted under “travel” and included the On the Border meal in September 2009, and more than $1,600 for staff meals at Carrabba’s, one in May 2010 and another in August 2010, according to credit card statements.
The audit noted that at least 29 “conferences, hotel, and travel related expenses” were submitted for reimbursement, without any itemization or justification for the expenses. Similarly, there were charges for Christmas cards totaling $253 and personal gifts totaling $430, in violation of school policy, according to the audit.
The school system considers the majority of the charges appropriate — they were spent for school purchases — but officials are working to address the overspending and the fact that many of the purchases lacked proper approval. School administrators are allowed to expense large meals if conducting school business, officials said, as long as the expenses are properly approved.
Philip Kavits, a school spokesman, said officials are using the outcome of the Potomac audit “to improve the system and make sure the dollars are spent as they should be,” adding that officials already have made “tremendous progress” in addressing the problem. He said the audits show that the majority of spending has not raised red flags and that the surprise internal audits — instituted in 2010 — are an effective tool for curbing abuse.
The school system has recovered $1,300 in charges, Kavits said.
Benita M. Stephens, Potomac Middle’s principal at time of the charges and the administrator who oversaw the school’s budget, was replaced this year and recently was placed on paid administrative leave, Kavits said. He declined to say why Stephens was placed on leave, calling it a personnel matter.