Montgomery’s records reveal school board’s credit card use as policy discussion looms

A review of nearly 1,500 pages of records shows that Montgomery County school board members took sharply different approaches to using their district-paid credit cards, with some charging restaurant meals with constituents or elected officials while others barely used the cards at all.

The records also show that two members — Christopher S. Barclay (District 4) and Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) — stayed in hotels in the Washington region this year for conferences that were less than 25 miles from their homes, with combined bills of more than $1,600 charged to the credit cards.

School board policies do not prohibit such expenses, but they have become the focus of a Montgomery school board committee, which is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss such practices. The committee was formed in late April after parents from a watchdog group called attention to the board’s use of the cards.

The newly released documents expand on previous records showing that Barclay, who is running for Montgomery County Council, made a series of unauthorized purchases on his credit card, which required him to reimburse the county.

Barclay has voiced regret over the charges and called the experience a teaching moment. “There was never any other intention than to pay it back,” Barclay said this week. “I have always repaid anything that was done.”

There is no indication in the records that other board members had similar unauthorized charges that needed reimbursement.

The only other repayment identified in the documents came from Michael A. Durso (District 5), for his wife’s attendance at an out-of-town conference and a breakfast. Durso said he found it was easier to make his wife’s arrangements through the school board’s office and to write a check to repay the district than to make the couple’s arrangements separately.

The new records, which go back five years and were obtained under an open-records law, give a broader look of expense spending by elected school leaders. They show:

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

●Some board members’ expense reports include restaurant meals with the participants not identified or referred to in general terms, such as “a constituent” or “students” or “teachers.”

●Board members sometimes took each other out for meals.

Board President Phil Kauffman (At Large) said the board’s new committee will look closely at such expenses.

Montgomery’s handbook for board members says that restaurant receipts must clearly indicate the names of participants and the purpose of the meetings. It encourages board members to attend national school board association conferences but also notes that “all Board members traveling on official business must exercise due care and prudence in incurring expenses.”

Asked about board members dining together, Kauffman said that on occasions when members’ schedules included afternoon and evening board commitments, some would have a meal during the break period rather than drive home and then return.

“That has been a practice that goes back many years,” he said, adding that board members do not have their own offices at school district headquarters.

Montgomery’s school board members are paid $18,500 a year, with the board president receiving an additional $4,000.

Kauffman said the committee also would examine the practice of staying overnight at Washington-area hotels for conferences. Barclay stayed at the Washington Hilton in Northwest twice, at a combined cost of more than $1,400, for conferences sponsored by the National School Boards Association, records show. Smondrowski did so this year, at a cost of $885.

Smondrowski said in a written statement that she takes her job seriously and that her work includes conferences and meetings with constituents. She said she fully supports the committee’s review of the use of credit cards.

“I definitely try very, very hard to always make sure that anything that is used or charged is only board business and is in the best interest of the work that I do,” Smondrowski said this week.

Barclay said he has attended the same Washington conference seven times and stayed at the hotel twice. “I’m extremely involved and very busy meeting with folks both early in the morning and late at night,” he said this week. “My issue is to go there to get the work done I’ve been tasked to do.”

Barclay said that while he appreciates the policy issues and the scrutiny of his records, “I think that if I wasn’t running for County Council, this wouldn’t be the same kind of issue.”

Barclay has stayed in the council race but has faced political fallout. Last week, he lost two major union endorsements he had previously secured.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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