Montgomery school board committee to recommend changes to spending rules

A Montgomery County school board committee tentatively agreed Thursday to recommend tightening the district’s expense-reporting practices in the wake of concerns about improper credit card charges and vague rules.

Committee members said they will urge the full Board of Education to restrict the use of district-issued credit cards to cover only out-of-town travel; forbid reimbursement of hotel stays for D.C. -area conferences; and end the practice of claiming reimbursement for the restaurant meals of constituents and others.

“I think we made a lot of progress,” said the board president, Phil Kauffman, (At Large), who chairs the committee. “I think it will change the culture of how we do business.”

Montgomery officials said the school system’s attorney will work with outside counsel to review expense reports dating to late 2012, examining them for possible corrective measures such as repayment by members, disciplinary action or process changes.

The reexamination follows the recent release of records showing that board member Christopher S. Barclay made unauthorized charges on his district credit card. Barclay, who is running for County Council, repaid the school system more than $1,900 to cover 16 charges over five years, according to records.

Board members are not using the district credit cards — and are limiting other expenses — as the board committee looks into the issue, officials said. Recommendations are expected to go to the full board in July.

The board committee was formed in late April after a Montgomery-based watchdog group, the Parents’ Coalition, called attention to the board’s expense records and credit card use.

Schools officials last week released nearly 1,500 pages of board records in response to open-records requests by The Washington Post and others. Officials said Thursday they would soon post those documents on the school district’s Web site.

The records show that board members’ practices concerning credit cards and restaurant meals have varied widely. They also show that two members — Barclay and Rebecca Smondrowski — charged overnight hotel stays in Northwest Washington, less than 25 miles from their homes, while attending conferences.

At Thursday’s meeting, the committee supported recommendations to ban district-paid hotel stays within 50 miles of county school headquarters and to require pre-approval for out-of-town conference expenses. Members would no longer be able to use district-issued credit cards for local expenses; they instead would be required to pay for them personally and seek reimbursement.

The new approach would limit the reimbursement of board members for their meals. Patricia O’Neill, board vice president, said that when she met recently with people from Walt Whitman High School, “I bought my own coffee, and each of them bought their own coffee.”

The committee was still working to improve the review process but suggested that an external auditor be used and annual training be given to board members.

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

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