Montgomery board gives up district-funded credit cards and adopts new rules

Montgomery County’s school board members unanimously voted to give up their district-paid credit cards, adopting a sweeping set of new spending rules after public disclosure of improper charges, unclear guidelines and poor oversight.

Under the newly adopted rules, board members need pre-approval for out-of-town travel and will be reimbursed for spending according to daily allowances that follow federal government guidelines.

Board members no longer will be able to take a political leader, staff member or constituent out to a restaurant meal at taxpayer expense. And if board members attend a conference within 50 miles of the school district’s central offices in Rockville, they will generally not be reimbursed for lodging expenses — an issue that arose after two board members, Christopher S. Barclay and Rebecca Smondrowski, charged hotel stays for a Washington-area conference.

The changes approved Monday night — which take effect immediately — follow a wave of public scrutiny that started in spring after a parents advocacy group obtained records showing Barclay made a series of unauthorized purchases that required reimbursement. Barclay has voiced regret and said he never had “any other intention than to pay it back.”

Barclay had 16 unauthorized charges, including restaurant and travel expenses, totaling more than $1,900 during the past five years, according to records The Washington Post has reviewed. In three instances, his repayment came nine to 12 months later.

At Monday’s meeting, Barclay was among the first to speak.

“First let me apologize,” Barclay said. “Though all of my personal expenses have been repaid, I am very sensitive to the toll all of this has taken on the institution and taken on my colleagues, and for that I am truly sorry.”

Barclay and other board members expressed support for the new and clarified rules and procedures, which emerged from a committee Board President Phil Kauffman formed in late April, as he grew aware of varying interpretations of what was allowed.

“I do think this is a very important step in terms of ensuring we all are on the same page,” Smondrowski said Monday night.

Board members said the discussion has refocused the issue of board expenses that rely on taxpayer money and have changed attitudes about the process. Board Member Michael Durso recalled booking his wife’s attendance at a conference through the board office because it was easier, repaying the cost two days after the trip. Now, he said, “I would not do that again. I would handle that differently.”

Some of the changes the board made focused on oversight, including a requirement that expense forms get approval from the board’s chief of staff — as was done previously — and from the board’s vice president. There are also new requirements for an annual external audit, semi-annual committee reviews of board expenditures, and annual training for board members.

Other new rules include the need to get preapproval for out-of-county mileage expense reimbursements, meal reimbursements for board members only for occasions directly related to board business, and an end to reimbursements for Internet service in home offices. The board also created a list of preapproved public events and conferences that members may attend at taxpayer expense.

Montgomery’s school board members do not have their own offices at the district’s central headquarters. They earn $18,500 a year, with the board president earning an extra $4,000.

At the meeting, Kauffman acknowledged shortcomings in board practices, saying that board members had committed to be good stewards of public dollars but “learned that we haven’t always lived up to our ideals in how we operate.”

Board members, he said, had “made mistakes” and left themselves open to criticism “both fair and unfair.” He said he personally reflected on “how I could have done better to meet the public’s trust.” Still, he said, “I do not believe that any of us have ever acted in bad faith or sought some type of personal gain.”

Kauffman noted that an outside review of the board’s practices did not find intentional misuse of credit cards for personal expenses, but it did cite weak processes that were not consistently followed and a lack of shared understanding of how the cards should be used. Kauffman said the changes would “address the findings from outside counsel and help us move forward.”

Kauffman said Tuesday that he considered the board’s action meaningful progress.

“I think we addressed the concerns, I think we were thorough in our response, and I am hopeful that it puts us in a better place going forward,” he said.

Some of the public records released last spring were first obtained — and publicly posted online — by the Parents’ Coalition, an advocacy group in Montgomery that has been pushing for change in how school officials use district-paid credit cards. Janis Sartucci, a leader of the group, said she believes the board’s actions continue to fall short.

“All the board did is cut up seven credit cards last night,” Sartucci said. “They did not change the amount of money they allocate for themselves for expenses. There is no additional money that goes to students or classrooms.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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