THE MONTGOMERY County Board of Education oversees one of the nation’s largest school systems , along with a budget exceeding $2 billion. It’s a big-league school board guiding a big-league school district. So why is the board’s leadership behaving like minor leaguers?
Faced with a garden-variety scandal involving one of its members using his county-issued credit card for personal expenses, the board had a choice: It could launch a policy review, operate with maximum transparency and present the public with all relevant information, or it could assume a defensive crouch, operate in secrecy and act like it has something to hide. The board chose the latter course.
Maybe the board has something to hide.
Why else would Board President Philip Kauffman (At Large) appoint a three-member committee of the board to handle the issue and then hold the committee’s first two meetings behind closed doors?
Mr. Kauffman has offered unconvincing reasons, mentioning unspecified personnel and legal issues. It’s hard to understand the basis for such concealment unless it’s to spare the board or its staff embarrassment. If that’s the case, it’s unwise: Failing to conscientiously safeguard the public’s tax dollars is not a personnel issue; it’s a dereliction of duty. And the public is entitled to know what happened and how.
The triggering event in this affair was the revelation of expenses incurred by Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring), a board member (and candidate for the county council) who charged nearly $1,500 in personal items to his board-
issued credit card. Mr. Barclay, who hasn’t held a regular job outside his board post for several years, charged personal meals and travel. Other questionable expenses — including a $745 charge for two nights at the Washington Hilton, with room service, in February — have not been reimbursed. Why would Mr. Barclay, who lives 25 minutes from the Washington Hilton in Takoma Park, elect to spend two nights at a hotel on the public’s dime?
Mr. Kauffman says the committee reviewing this will open its meetings to the public once it turns its attention to revising and tightening policies. One revision worth considering is whether board members need board credit cards. Montgomery County Council members survive without them. There’s no reason school board members can’t use personal credit cards and put in for reimbursement for justified and documented expenses.
Meanwhile, why the secrecy? The board should publish records of credit card use by all board members and allow the committee addressing the issue to open its doors to the public now. By failing to do that, the board plants seeds of suspicion that the people running Montgomery’s schools have something up their sleeve.