MCPS Board of Ed. tosses credit cards, overhauls spending practices

ROCKVILLE, Md. (WJLA) - Montgomery County's Board of Education is radically changing the way it spends your money.

During a meeting Monday evening, the board voted unanimously to permanently cancel American Express credit card accounts linked to all seven of its adult members.

In May, two-term board member Chris Barclay was lambasted for making at least 14 personal charges with his taxpayer-issued credit card. All combined, the charges siphoned more than $1,400 from school district coffers.

Barclay claimed the charges were an honest mistake all 14 times, but records show he took months, and in one case more than a year, to pay back his debts—interest-free.

An onslaught of media scrutiny surrounding Barclay prompted MCPS to release expense reports for all board members and board staffers, which exposed a throng of additional misspending and poor financial oversight.

In attempt to wipe the egg off its face, MCPS, long heralded as Maryland's premier school district, mobilized a special committee to prevent future misconduct and strengthen overall accountability. The committee, which did not include Montgomery County residents, but rather three board members guided by school district staffers and a private Washington, D.C. law firm, held both private and public meetings over the span of two months. On Monday the committee delivered its long-anticipated recommendations to the full board, which gave an unwavering nod of approval.

“It was clear that our expense processes and procedures were weak and were not always followed,” Board President Phil Kauffman, who led the special committee, said. “I believe these changes were needed and will help build public trust in how the board conducts business and spends valuable taxpayer resources.”

In a media release issued Monday, MCPS highlighted the major renovations on its road to renewed fiscal responsibility:

“1. Removal of credit card authorization: Board members will not be issued credit cards, even for the purposes of authorized travel outside of Montgomery County. Board administrative staff may continue to use the cards for authorized purchases.

2. Per diem for authorized travel: Board members will receive a daily allowance—or per diem—for non-local travel, in accordance with funding caps used by the federal government.

3. Pre-approval for non-local travel: All out-of-county travel must be pre-approved, including attendance at out-of-county hearings, work group meetings, professional development opportunities and conferences. Board members will not be reimbursed for lodging at hotels located within 50 miles of the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

4. Approved events/meetings for board members: The board developed a list of pre-approved conferences, events and meetings that its members would be authorized to attend or travel to in 2014-2015. The board also established a process for considering requests that the county pay for attendance at an event, meeting or conference not on the pre-approved list.

5. Meal reimbursement: Board members will no longer be reimbursed if they purchase a meal for someone else, such as a constituent, political leader or MCPS staff member. Board members can be reimbursed for their own meals if they are directly related to board business, and at a rate consistent with caps set by the federal government.

6. Mileage reimbursement: Any out-of-county travel must be pre-approved in order for a board member to receive mileage reimbursement.

7. Home office: Board members will continue to be provided with the necessary equipment and supplies to maintain home offices. However, the board will no longer grant reimbursements for home office Internet service.

8. Approval process and semiannual reports: The board approved a more robust process for expense approvals. Also, the board’s Fiscal Management Committee will review summary reports on the status of expenditures by board members and the board office. The full board will receive the reports in their regular board packets as an item of information and the reports will be available for public inspection. An annual external audit of board expenses will also be conducted.”

During Monday evening's meeting, board members complimented one another on the progress they had made since news headlines first broke. Others, despite acknowledging wrongdoing, accused the media of biased and sensational reporting.

"Our board members do not get enough credit for all you do, and frankly much of the criticism leveled at you has been unfair," Superintendent Joshua Starr remarked.

"Some of our colleagues are constantly mentioned in reference to the subject at hand. I'm not sure that's always been fair and objective," board member Michael Durso added.

"Alongside of Mr. Durso's comments, about how sometimes things can be very easily misperceived, and without full understanding, can be misconstrued to some people’s whims, or the way they want to see it," Rebecca Smondrowski stated.

Louis Wilen, a leading member of the Montgomery County Parents' Coalition, an organization advocating for better government transparency, says he found certain board members' remarks offensive.

"I would call it a pity party," Wilen stated. "The taxpayers didn't get an apology, the students didn't get an apology, the teachers who are using their own money to purchase supplies for their classrooms didn't get an apology ... [but] the board members got apologies from each other."

To no surprise, Chris Barclay offered the most direct apology of the evening, but still shied away from stating too many specifics.

"First let me apologize. Though all of my personal expenses have been repaid, I am very sensitive to the toll this has taken on the institution, and taken on my colleagues, and for that I am truly sorry," Barclay remarked. "I stand ready to move forward and move ahead, and I appreciate the work of my colleague Mr. Kauffman and the ad hoc committee, and I think it's really important that the board move forward."

"Their words are one thing, their actions are another," Wilen added. "Now let's wait and see."

The laundry list of new policies, including the dismissal of board member credit cards, took effect Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor continues its criminal probe into the board of education. Although the office won't comment on ongoing investigations, criminal charges against board staffers and/or its members are possible.