Montgomery County Tuition Assistance Program Scrutinized, Halted

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

Montgomery County officials Wednesday indefinitely suspended a widely criticized tuition assistance program for county employees that paid for questionable classes and sparked several ongoing investigations.

According to county records, the classes paid for include "France-Culture Study Abroad," "The Christian Home," "Bicycle Assembly and Maintence, Spoked Wheel Lacing," "Textiles" and "Aerobics."

The county's chief administrative officer, Timothy L. Firestine, said in a statement that "serious questions have been raised about the appropriateness of a small number of the hundreds of courses covered by the program."

Officials said no new courses would be approved, pending a review. Employees with existing approvals will continue to be reimbursed, but those classes are being examined to make sure they are appropriate, they said.

The program was launched in the 1970s and has long had loose criteria that are also embedded in county labor agreements, said Joe Adler, director of Montgomery's Office of Human Resources, which oversees the program. Tuition can go for classes that would help an employee not only in a current job but in any county job, Adler said. He said employees seeking degrees also get assistance, even for electives. "The criteria [are] very broad," he said.

"It would seem that there's a need for stricter criteria," said Patrick Lacefield, a government spokesman.

The move comes two weeks after County Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) called for the program to be suspended. Andrews said the program costs the county about $1 million a year and is "not essential," particularly given squeezed budgets.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) had also raised questions, pointing to courses with titles such as "Bible Doctrines" and "Life on the Down Low."

"The list goes on and on. Why are we allowing the funds to be used in that manner?" Ervin asked.

Officials said they are seeking reimbursement from employees who might have used county money to pay for equipment, books, or room and board. The program is for tuition only.

One issue under investigation is whether public funds were used to get flashlights, private firearms and other items for public safety employees at cheap prices, officials said.

County Attorney Leon Rodriguez, a former federal prosecutor, said Montgomery investigators are looking into whether there was any criminal wrongdoing. Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley is leading a separate inquiry. The county is looking at "whether the discount on those items had anything to do with county money. County money can only be used for tuition," Lacefield said.

The firearms issue and many questionable courses, such as a hot yoga class, were first reported by the Washington Examiner.

Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said the program suspension makes sense.

"I'm concerned nobody thought about the controls being in place on the front end," Knapp said. He said he would like to see the program restored with tight limits. "It can be a good thing, but it shouldn't be a boondoggle."

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