This editorial was corrected on July 16 and 18, 2014. An explanation follows at the end.
Credit cards can lull people into becoming lackadaisical about spending, and Montgomery County Public Schools is no exception.
The public learned in May about inappropriate personal purchases board member Christopher Barclay made with a district credit card, totaling nearly $1,500. Barclay reimbursed the school district.
But there was more. Other records were released, showing a number of purchases by elected district officials and administrators worth scrutiny, such as:
• $486 for two work bags, for Kimberly A. Statham, who was recently named deputy superintendent for school support and improvement, to carry a laptop, power cords and other items;
• Hundreds of dollars in personal purchases that Ikhide Roland Ikheloa, the chief of staff to the school board, mistakenly made on a district credit card at miscellaneous stores, such as $581.87 at Mr. Tire, $67.09 at Target, $50 at Sargent Cleaners and $36.56 at Giant;
• $509 for board members and others to have dinner in October at an Ocean City conference, including $42 for surf and turf, $39 for a lobster tail dish and a few orders of $39 prime ribs.
We also heard about hundreds of dollars spent so board member Judith Docca could ride in taxis to meetings and events because of her health problems. The trips were related to her school board duties, the district says, but we have a hard time accepting that a $457 cab trip to St. Mary’s County is the best use of public money. Other trips have cost more than $100, $200 and $300.
Anyone who has traveled long stretches knows that taxis are about the worst per-mile cost in transportation.
Before these exorbitant trips continue, we suggest presenting the problem to Montgomery students, who, we are certain, could come up with a more cost-efficient plan. Put up cash prizes for the best ideas, using money the district surely would save.
Here’s another solution: Mr. Yuk.
Mr. Yuk is the scowling face, with scrunched eyes and a tongue sticking out, that is widely used to label poisonous materials.
Before district officials get careless again and use the wrong card, Mr. Yuk stickers should be affixed to all district credit cards. Think of it as the face taxpayers make when their money is squandered.
For $42 entrees, we have another simple idea: Pretend the money you’re spending is your own, not an endless, open spigot.
Frankly, we’re fed up with the lack of care and judgment we see each time one of these spending reports is distributed.
We’re glad the district has a committee examining spending and reimbursement policies.
But we’re skeptical; the work is being done by the very board whose members have shown poor judgment.
It’s important to note that these expenses — other than the rash of “accidental” purchases — don’t violate district policies. Board members and administrators are allowed to have work-related expenses covered when they travel and eat.
But the trends we’ve seen violate common sense and fiscal prudence.
It has taken a watchdog outside group, the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, to ferret out this waste. The coalition, driven by its sharp curiosity, frequently uses the Maryland Public Information Act to request public records and keep track of district decisions and spending.
We commend the coalition for its important work on this front. It is saving county residents money as inappropriate spending has been uncovered.
If the school system wants to restore faith in its credit card system, it should invite outsiders to help examine and overhaul the expense-approval system. The Parents’ Coalition should be represented in that process, along with other people with financial expertise and no ties to the current power structure.
Beyond that, the district could do more to show it’s serious about meaningful reform.
First, regularly post online all credit card expenses and make them easily accessible and searchable, as public records should be. Once a month should suffice. Knowing that someone is watching as public money is spent is a powerful check on waste.
The second change we’d like to see is tougher, but more significant: Overhaul the culture.
Surely, board members (who get paid $18,500 a year, plus $4,000 more for the president) and administrators with integrity and noble intentions don’t take these jobs expecting a windfall. But a universe of liberal reimbursement makes it easy to get lulled into a sense of entitlement.
Banish a culture that encourages people to pursue the outer limits of spending.
Flip that around: How can I best donate my time and money? And what’s the least I need in return?
Service should trump compensation.
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described when Christopher Barclay repaid the school system for expenses he made on a district credit card. He reimbursed the district before records of his expenses were released to the public.
Also, a reference to the pay of school board members was incorrect. The current base pay is $18,500, plus $4,000 more for the president. Starting this year, pay will increase to $25,000 for anyone elected to a new term on the board. The president will continue to receive an extra $4,000.