UPPER MARLBORO – A Prince George’s County Board of Education committee meeting Thursday night to consider changes to policies regarding credit card usage and expense reimbursements turned into a conversation about how expense accounts should be used. The board’s Policy, Legal and Legislative Committee’s consideration of policy changes comes after The Sentinel reported board members […]
UPPER MARLBORO – A Prince George’s County Board of Education committee meeting Thursday night to consider changes to policies regarding credit card usage and expense reimbursements turned into a conversation about how expense accounts should be used.
The board’s Policy, Legal and Legislative Committee’s consideration of policy changes comes after The Sentinel reported board members spent thousands on local meals and a retreat at a hotel in National Harbor. According to credit card receipts and expense reports, the board’s vice chair, Carolyn Boston, and school board member Verjeana Jacobs used their credit cards for the most meals of any board members between January 2013 and May 2014. Boston purchased 114 meals totaling more than $5,500 and Jacobs purchased 87 meals totaling more than $6,200.
The retreat cost taxpayers more than $5,000 plus additional costs for room service and overnight valet parking.
The proposed policy changes define allowable expenses and unallowable expenses.
According to a draft of the new policy, “Board members must use prudence and exercise due care in incurring expenses.”
Unallowable expenses include:
• Payment for hire or salary of an individual
• Any personal bills or expenses not related to the BOE
• Cash or cash advances except use on non-local travel
• Alcohol beverages and tobacco products
• Non-business (BOE) related meals
• Expenses related to family members and spouse travel
• Relocation expenses
• In-flight internet
• In-room movies
• Hotel mini bars
• Laundry services
• Valet services
• Airline membership fees
• Incremental costs over standard-size room rates and upgrades
• Cancellation fees where reasonable prudent actions could have been taken to avoid such charges
• First class airline, train or other travel tickets or upgrades
• Rental cars for local travel
• Parking tickets and traffic violations
• Clothing/personal items
• Contributions to support religious or political activities
• Board member compensation in any form from expense account
The new policy also defines local meals as “meals taken within 30 miles or less” from the board’s office building in Upper Marlboro. The policy restricts board members to two local meals weekly and requires meals with more than three people to be pre-approved.
To obtain reimbursement for meals, board members must limit themselves to $17 for breakfast, $20 for lunch and $39 for dinner – a total of $76 per day.
“You could always have some clarity, there was nothing that violated any law or policy previously,” said Board Chairman Segun Eubanks. “The things that came out brought up some questions, but we clarified some things such as local versus nonlocal travel. Some of the issues were around exorbitant meal prices. It puts some clear parameters on that. Now I can’t just go out and have lunch every single day.”
Eubanks said he and school system staff continue to discuss whether to ban credit cards, but for now board members may still have them.
“We still have the expense account. Credit cards have always been a means to use that account. Our policy was silent on that before, and it is silent on that now,” Eubanks said. “The use of credit cards is still something we are deliberating on and trying to figure out. There are some adjustments we have made that I think will facilitate folks not having the necessity for credit cards. Much of (the policy revisions) are a part of it.”
During the committee’s discussion, Jacobs, vice chair of the committee, questioned whether board members should be allowed to contribute money to schools during the school year.
The current policy gives each board member a $7,000 account for expense reimbursements and allows them to designate the funds to “benefit a school” if there is a remaining fund balance at the end of the year.
Eubanks said the revisions do not change the previous policy, but he found the policy had not been followed because board members were using money on schools before the end of the year.
“So now you can only spend that money at the end of the year, during the summer when school is out?” Jacobs said. “That defeats the purpose. When a school calls you up and asks you for money, you can’t do it because it’s not the end of the school year.”
Eubanks said the purpose of the accounts, according to the policy, is to cover allowable out-of-pocket expenses incurred in the performance of board member responsibilities.
“To me, that means the intent really was to take care of your business and if at the end of the year you have money left, then you give it to the schools,” Eubanks said. “The intent is to cover expenses, that is what (the policy) says. Giving money to schools is not an expense.”
Michele Winston, director of internal audit for Prince George’s County Public Schools, said the primary purpose of the accounts is not for spending money at schools.
“The primary purpose is for expense reimbursement,” Winston said. “The fund is intended as a reimbursement-of-expenses fund. The issue is if you are treating (the account) as an expenditure reimbursement or as an allotment of funds.”
Jacobs said she thinks the policy is “too harsh” and questioned whether board members should continue to buy books about leadership for each other.
Eubanks said buying books would be an allowable expense because reading the books helps board members “expand their knowledge and ability to do their job.”
“Our job is also to serve the community and the students,” Jacobs said in response. “That part is being lost in the function and work of a board member.”