Scrutiny over how some members of a Maryland school board are using their government-issued credit cards is growing, and board leaders are considering sweeping changes because of it.
The News4 I-Team spent the past week reviewing 1,500 pages of credit card receipts, taxpayer-funded expenses from the past few years by top administrators and members of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education – part-time board members who earn about $18,500 per year. The I-Team found thousands of dollars in meal expenses -- more than 130 meals paid for by taxpayers.
There is no rule capping the amount board members can spend on food for themselves or for breakfast and lunch "meetings."
Board member Rebecca Smondrowski expensed a series of lunch meetings, including a meal, without booze, at the Wine Harvest wine bar in Gaithersburg, the Greene Turtle sports bar and almost a dozen Starbucks trips.
Christopher Barclay, a school board member who’s also running for a seat on the Montgomery County Council, charged more than 100 meals to taxpayers since 2010.
Barclay and Smondrowski broke no rules doing so, but theirs are the type of expenses a county panel is scrutizing. A committee of the county’s board of education announced Thursday it is considering recommending a prohibition on board members using government-issued credit cards for “out-of-county travel and meals for non-board members, including 'elected leaders, staff or constituents.'"
Kathy Gambrell, the parent of a fifth grade student, is among those criticizing the recent board member expenses.
“Why is that necessary?” she asked. “If the focus is going to be on education and education policy, then they need to get in, they need to take care of what they need to take care of, and then they need to get out."
At least two school board members, Smondrowski and Barclay, also used their taxpayer credit cards for hotel stays at the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue in northwest D.C. at about $239 per night during education conferences. Smondrowski used the hotel room this past winter and Barclay did so in 2013 and February 2014. The Hilton is just a 28-minute trip on Metro’s Red Line from the stop near county school board headquarters.
A county school board panel, meeting publicly Thursday, said it will recommend the board do what the federal government does: Prohibit taxpayer-funded credit cards from being used for local hotel rooms.
“A federal employee working in the federal government, (would) never got to stay in a local hotel,” Board of Education President Phil Kauffman said. “There are national conferences all the time, and you're just expected to commute to those conferences."
The board says it also will recommend “requiring preapproval for costs associated with Board members’ attendance at any out-of-county conferences, workshops, and meetings … and requiring preapproval for tickets to attend local events.”
“It is my hope that the Board of Education will enact some of the same transparency measures that have been adopted by the council," Montgomery County Council President Craig Rice said Friday.
In a statement to the News4 I-Team, Smondrowski said she charged her hotel stay at the Washington Hilton because she needed to be there early the next morning for a meeting and it was a long rush-hour commute from her house.
“Conferences begin very early,” Barclay said, “and our opportunity to network goes late into the evening.”
Smondrowski and Barclay made the following statements on credit card use.
On the hotel:
"I stayed at the conference hotel in Washington, DC because I needed to be there early and it would take up to 1 1/2 hours to get there from my house during rush hour. Also, I spent the evening hours meeting and networking with board members from around the country. It was a great learning experience for me and will ultimately help me be a better and more informed board member here in Montgomery County."
On card usage:
"I am looking forward to working with my colleagues on the board to discuss in more detail how we should handle expenses related to our duties as elected board members. I am fully supportive of the review we are undertaking and always believe that we should continue to explore ways to be more efficient and effective."
On the hotel stays:
I am very active on the National School Boards Association’s Council on Urban Boards of Education and Federal Relations Network and attend these conferences regularly. These conferences not only provide me with important information and strategies I can use to be a better Board member, but provide me with a rare opportunity to meet with my colleagues from around the country and share best practices and ideas. These conferences begin very early and our opportunity to network goes late into the evening.
I take my job as a Board member very seriously and work around the clock on behalf of our students. Many of the children and families that live in my district do not have a voice in our county, and I have taken great care to make sure their voices are heard and their needs are met. Sometimes that has meant taking constituents out for a meal to hear their concerns or sitting down for dinner with a community leader to figure out how we can best serve students. That is an important part of what I do as a Board member and I am proud of how I have represented our students in my district and throughout Montgomery County.
That being said, I strongly support the work of the ad-hoc committee and look forward to considering their recommendations in the future.