Montgomery schools officials to close some meetings on credit card practices

A Montgomery County school board committee that is examining board members’ credit card practices plans to close some of its meetings to the public as it reviews elected officials’ expenses.

Board of Education President Phil Kauffman (At Large) said the ad hoc committee — which includes three of the board’s eight members — is exempt from open meetings law requirements because it does not include a board quorum and is not an official board body.

Kauffman created the committee in late April to examine the board’s credit card and expense policies, including whether members should have district-issued credit cards at all. The committee’s work follows recent concerns about inappropriate charges attributed to a board member.

“We are going to be getting the advice of counsel,” Kauffman said. “We have some legal questions . . . about what is and isn’t appropriate under Maryland law.”

Montgomery’s district-paid credit cards have become a focus in recent weeks because of public records showing that Board of Education member Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring) reimbursed the school system for nearly $1,500 in unauthorized expenses, including restaurant meals and purchases from a travel Web site.

Barclay is running for the Montgomery County Council, and the uproar over his charges contributed to a decision this week by the Service Employees International Union Local 500 to withdraw its endorsement of him. The Montgomery County Education Association, the county’s 12,000-member teachers union, on Wednesday night announced that it had voted to withdraw its support of Barclay.

In the wake of reports about his credit card use, Barclay voiced his regrets in a statement and said the experience has been “a teaching moment.” This week he said he planned to remain in the race.

Kauffman described the committee late last month, after Barclay’s expenses were publicized. Kauffman at first said the committee meetings would be closed, and Wednesday he said that only meetings focused on officials’ expense records and legal matters would be closed. Other meetings — focused on procedures or guidelines — will remain open “to the extent that we can,” he said. The next meeting, planned for next Thursday, is closed.

Kauffman said the committee would make recommendations and send the matter to the full board. “The full board, I’m sure, will have a robust conversation,” he said.

Some questioned the basis for keeping out the public.

“I don’t get the need for secrecy,” said County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), a former teacher who pointed out that the credit card charges and expense records are publicly available documents. “It baffles me. I’m shocked.”

“This would be a very good moment for transparency, if they want people to think they are working this out,” he said.

Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) — who serves on the committee with Kauffman and board member Michael A. Durso, chairman of the board’s fiscal management committee — said she would follow the guidance of the school system’s lawyer but did not object to opening the discussion.

“I personally have no problem with having an open meeting,” she said.

Durso declined to comment, referring questions to board officers. The officers said in a release Monday that board members would stop using credit cards during the review.

They also detailed the committee’s goals, to examine board “processes and guidelines on reimbursable expenses.” They said the panel would review board expenses for the past two years “in order to inform its forward-looking recommendations” and consider the “appropriateness of these expenditures under our policies.”

David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland attorney general’s office, declined to comment on Montgomery’s actions regarding the committee meetings but said Wednesday that the Open Meetings Act does not apply to subcommittees unless they are created by “a rule, resolution, or bylaw.”

An activist with the Parents’ Coalition, a watchdog group that presses the school system for greater transparency, filed a complaint with the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board. Paulson confirmed that the state had received the complaint; board decisions generally come within 30 days, he said.

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