A college president can be expected to spend some money to travel, but some students and staff at Montgomery College think their president is spending too much and asked the News4 I-Team to dig into the college’s spending records to find out where their tuition – and county tax dollars – are really going.
With more than 56,000 students each year, Montgomery College is the biggest community college in Maryland.
“A lot of people are on financial aid or they’re working,” student Thomas Linonetti said.
He was one of several students waiting to catch a bus home when the I-Team asked them about how they pay for tuition. They all agreed they pay about $2,000 per semester.
“I saved a bit from high school and I’m currently working right now,” said Sky Rehman.
Another student, Tochi Chinyere, said he also works after class because, “I’m working hard at school and after I get out to stay in school."
Staffers Sent Letters Complaining to I-Team
The News4 I-Team started investigating Montgomery College after receiving multiple letters from staffers throughout the summer complaining about the school’s president, Dr. DeRionne Pollard, and how much she spends on travel and transportation, including an armed driver recently hired by the school to protect her.
The I-Team obtained a copy of Dr. Pollard's contract after filing a public records request with the school, and it shows she receives a $281,000 salary with a possible 5 percent annual bonus, along with an additional $3,000 housing allowance each month for her home in Germantown, Maryland.
According to the contract, the school's Board of Trustees also agreed to pay for all of her work-related travel -- and for all of her wife’s travel costs anytime she accompanied her on business trips.
The records show Dr. Pollard spent more than $70,000 since 2013 traveling to cities like Napa, California; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and almost 40 other destinations, averaging 13 trips per year within the past two years.
The I-Team even found a hotel receipt showing a $1,792 charge for a five-day stay at the Marriott Wardman in northwest D.C. -- about 20 miles from her home. A college spokesman said the stay was necessary because Dr. Pollard helped host a conference there.
Flight Upgrades, Extra Baggage and Room Service
While county and federal policy prohibits employees from using taxpayer money to upgrade their flights, the I-Team found the rules at Montgomery College are different.
Credit card receipts and expense reports submitted by Dr. Pollard show she spent more than $6,000 upgrading seats for both herself and her wife. The school’s spokesman said Dr. Pollard needs the upgrades because she needs to use her laptop and her wife has pain from knee replacement surgery.
The couple also spent at least $3,700 paying for extra and overweight baggage.
One example dates from the summer of 2015, when Dr. Pollard spent more than $3,400 on airfare and upgraded seats to fly both herself and her wife to Honolulu and then Austin, Texas, for back-to-back conferences.
They spent an additional $495 on luggage fees for their five additional bags.
After spending $2,776 for a hotel room at the Moana Surfrider in Honolulu, they spent another $2,753 at the Four Seasons in Austin, racking up $500 on room service, including an $80 breakfast and a $49 dinner on the same night Dr. Pollard submitted a receipt for another $127 dinner at an Austin restaurant.
Students like Linonetti were surprised at these costs.
“That's ridiculous,” he said. “It should be going back here to the people who are actually paying, the professors who are working hard."
$850 Car Lease Plus a Car Service
The I-Team also found at least 40 receipts for a pricey car service to transport Dr. Pollard and her wife, including multiple trips to local airports, for as much as $175 a pop one way.
A 15-mile ride to D.C.’s public radio station WAMU-FM, when Dr. Pollard was interviewed by radio show host Kojo Nnamdi about how many of her students rely on federal Pell grants and how to make community college more affordable, cost $292.
A round-trip taxi ride would have cost less than a third the price, according to calculations made by the I-Team using popular taxi websites.
Student Maiyra Holmes, who said she was looking for a part-time job because her financial aid wasn’t enough to cover the cost of her tuition, said she was let-down by this type of spending.
“We're all working towards paying the tuition,” Holmes said. “And the fact she has all this money is ridiculous."
Students also questioned why Dr. Pollard was even using the car service when the college is also paying $850 a month on her lease for an Infiniti Q70. According to her contract, the school also pays for all her gas, maintenance, parking and insurance. Reimbursement records obtained by the I-Team showed the school has spent more than $45,000 on her vehicle expenses since 2013.
Students like Rehman said they think that money “should go 110 percent back to the students.”
“Someone works for all that money,” he said. “No one gets money for free.”
Board of Trustees Supports President
Both Dr. Pollard and the Board of Trustees declined requests for on-camera interviews. Spokesman Raymond Gilmer initially said he would do an on-camera interview but later explained the president and the board went behind closed doors and decided no one from the college would speak about the spending.
Gilmer did tell the I-Team the college can afford the president's trips, which he explained in a subsequent email have "improved the college's visibility" and helped "foster strategic opportunities and partnerships that yield grants, scholarships, employee training agreements and more."
In a written statement, the board told the I-Team, "The Montgomery College Board of Trustees greatly values Dr. DeRionne Pollard’s vision and leadership of the College, which serves 56,000 students a year as the most affordable higher education choice for Montgomery County residents. The Board resolutely supports Dr. Pollard’s management initiatives, strategic partnership advances here at home and abroad, and stewardship of resources in service to our students and community.”
Questions About Armed Driver
The I-Team also received complaints from staffers who want to know why the college is now paying about $10,000 per month to rent yet another vehicle, this time an SUV, and pay for an off-duty police officer to pick Dr. Pollard up at home and drive her to work each day.
Even though the college has its own unarmed campus security, records obtained by the I-Team show that starting in February, the college began paying $52 per hour for this armed driver to work between 10-to-15 hours a day.
While drivers are not unusual, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement said, "There are very few university or college presidents who have armed details on a daily basis."
The college initially said it hired the driver as part of a pilot program after "credible threats" were made against Dr. Pollard.
When the I-Team pressed for details, the school showed records about a man who “appeared to be homeless” and tried to walk into the college’s administrative offices last fall, as well as a website that used a racial slur against Dr. Pollard when she first became president six years ago.
Since hiring the armed guard, the college said Dr. Pollard has also seen a tweet and a separate Facebook post containing insensitive comments about her.
The college asked us not to publish these documents, citing safety concerns.
County Executive’s Take on Guard and Spending
According to its website, Montgomery College receives 50 percent of its funding from county taxpayers, so the I-Team asked County Executive Ike Leggett to get his take on armed security.
"It's not something you can take lightly, and you don't want to second guess this,” Leggett said. “So, the amount of money we're talking about is relatively small if you end up with incidents that can lead to greater harm."
When the I-Team asked if Leggett was planning to review Dr. Pollard’s travel and transportation expenses since the I-Team received multiple complaints, he said on-camera that he “was not alarmed” by the expenses because there was “transparency” and they were “approved by the board.”
“But several people have asked me to take a look at it again, and I will certainly look at it,” Leggett concluded.
But a few days later, and just a couple of hours before publication, Leggett’s spokesman sent a statement saying the county executive “did not see any substantive issues of concern” about Dr. Pollard’s expenses, explaining Leggett’s previous on-camera comments were “hypothetical” because “if folks had asked him to look at it, he would -- but to date no one has.”
The Grand Total
In all, records show Dr. Pollard spent about $160,000 on travel, meals and transportation since 2013, the equivalent of a semester’s tuition for about 80 students.
That number does not include the $70,000 the school has spent on her private security.
The I-Team did reach out to multiple higher education associations to find out how Dr. Pollard compares when it comes to other college presidents and whether other schools pay for spouses to travel, but so far, it appears no one is keeping track of that information.
So what do you think? Tell us in the comments below.
Reported by Tisha Thompson, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.