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Board of Ed Cuts Up Credit Cards

Germantown Pulse, Germantown News, BOE

The Montgomery County Board of Education cut-up their county issued credit cards at Monday’s Board of Education meeting, by approving sweeping changes to the process and guidelines which govern the way Board members are reimbursed for expenses incurred while serving as Board members.

Among the changes, which are effective immediately, Board members will no longer use district-funded credit cards and will instead; receive a per diem allowance when attending professional conferences. The Board will also employ a new process for determining which public events, conferences, and meetings that Board members can attend at the district’s expense.

Board of Education President, Phil Kauffman said, “I am pleased that the Board has approved these changes and has affirmed their commitment to being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

The Board had come under fire in June when a News4 Washington investigation reported that Board members where spending thousands of dollars on meals and fancy hotel rooms while attending education conferences in Washington D.C, and passing those expense on to taxpayers. Prior to Monday’s policy changes there had not been a limitation on what could be submitted as work expenses. The Board’s actions on Monday are an effort to eliminate such expenditures.

The Board formed an Ad Hoc Committee to look into the processes and guidelines governing Board member expenses. As part of the review, the committee hired The Venable law firm to review expense reports from the past two years and make recommendations for changes based on the findings.

After it’s review, the Ad Hoc Committee, which included Kauffman, Board vice president Patricia O’Neill, and the chairman of the Board’s fiscal management committee Michael Durso, sent recommendations to the Board for consideration.”

“Based on the Ad Hoc Committee’s work and the review of outside counsel, it was clear that our expense processes and procedures were weak and were not always followed,” Kauffman said via a Board press release. “I believe these changes were needed and will help build public trust in how the Board conducts business and spends valuable taxpayer resources.”

While the committee was conducting its review, all members of the Board agreed to stop using the Montgomery County Public School-issued credit cards. The committee found that the irregular expenditures were the often the result of inconsistences and ambiguities in the old guidelines.

Prior to Monday’s changes, the Board's use of MCPS-issued cards and other reimbursable expenditures has been guided by the 2009-2013 Purchasing Card User's Guide and the November 2008 edition of the Board's Operations Handbook.

According a report written by Venable attorney Karl Racine, “The guidance set forth in these documents is comparable to the procedures utilized by other boards of education in Maryland and elsewhere, but outside counsel's review reveals that these documents, along with practices developed over the years, led to certain inconsistencies and ambiguity. Confusion regarding the appropriate rules of the road substantially contributed to variances in the manner in which Board members sought reimbursement for official MCPS business. The guide and handbook, and the practices developed over the years, too often left the judgment of what was or was not reasonable to individual Board members and Board of Education staff.”

The report continues, “In the absence of shared norms and expectations, Board members tools different approaches in exercising their own judgment in determining whether an expense was related to their official duties. The subjective nature of such judgments, combined with the variances in the manner that Board members perform their work, contributed to the issues at hand.”

The report also found a lack of training regarding “best practices and over-reliance upon anecdotal norms” when it came to what was and was not acceptable for reimbursement. In addition, the range of consequences for failure to follow procedures and guidelines was not clearly communicated to Board members and BOE staff,” the Venable Report said.