To offer more flexibility and less paperwork, Alonso created a program in January 2011 that issued credit cards — which the schools call procurement cards — to 38 employees. About half of the cards went to principals, whose expenses were redacted from The Sun's request, and others mainly to executive assistants at headquarters.
The system has still charged about $180,000 on the old credit cards since the new program began, primarily for travel by Alonso and school board members or officials.
The schools chief said that travel has allowed the district to repair its reputation nationally and forge new relationships that have helped garner millions in outside funding, though he declined to offer specific figures. Most of Alonso's travel expenses are reimbursed by conference organizers.
City school board President Neil Duke said the costs associated with the nine-member board's travel to conferences — $18,820 so far this year — reflect that Baltimore has become a "district in demand."
Board members, who are appointed and not paid, travel to conferences up to three times a month, records show, with as many as four members attending at a time.
"Because Baltimore now occupies a higher profile for the achievements that we've accomplished, there's an expectation that we would have board representation at certain national conferences," Duke said.
School officials typically stay where the conferences are held, which sometimes means costly hotels. For example, one school board member traveled to Memphis, Tenn., last year and stayed at the Peabody Hotel, a favorite of country music stars that starts at $300 per night. Another board member's stay at the Westin Copley Place Hotel in Boston totaled $1,800 for four nights, statements show.
Duke said the board plans to review its travel policies in the future to "make sure we're properly represented where it would benefit the district … and not at either extreme."
Similarly, school officials said that business dinners — some costing more than $100 per person — have helped further the district's agenda.
For example, as the deadline drew near for Alonso to renew his contract to stay in Baltimore for a second four-year term last year, he and the school board ironed out last-minute details over a $1,000 dinner at the Center Club. The board also met with Alonso in April of this year over a $735 dinner at the Capital Grille, which nine people attended.
Duke said the Center Club dinner was unique in that "the setting would be important to get the contract signed," and the Capital Grille dinner was "just to discuss general things in a more informal setting."
Records show that in the last few years, Alonso has also used meals to seal deals.
For instance, when he began negotiating the new Baltimore Teachers Union contract in 2010, he did so over a $190 dinner at the Prime Rib with the union's leadership. Last fall, he and the union heads continued to hammer out the pact's details over a $345 dinner at Ruth's Chris.
Records show he also frequents Papermoon Diner, Pazo, Petit Louis Bistro, and Shuckers of Fells Point to discuss business with community partners, board members, political leaders and visitors.
And he has occasional — and sometimes costly — meals with members of his Cabinet. For example, in July 2010 the schools chief discussed the "transition" with his former chief financial officer over a $236 dinner at the Capital Grille.
Alonso said he doesn't have such dinners with his staff frequently, but "when I do, it is because there is an instrumental purpose, and I need to go beyond the normal setting to get what I need from people or for the school system."
Call for tighter reins
The Sun's review also found that many of the transactions did not follow spending rules that are spelled out in guidelines presented to employees when they were issued a card.
According to the guidelines, the cards are not to be used on travel-related expenses like hotels and airfare. But since the program started, roughly $67,000 was charged to the cards for travel by central office administrators.
The guidelines also prohibit gifts for employees, but departments, including Alonso's, spent more than $600 on items such as fruit baskets, flowers and other gifts.
And the program's rules prohibit spending on programs that are funded by grant money rather than government funds — such as grants for student leadership development. One cardholder charged $97,000 worth of student leadership grant funds to the card to take students on several trips out of town.
Several cardholders exceeded the $500-per-transaction and $1,500-per-month limits imposed by the rules, and officials said that many of the cards were permitted to have no limits at all. And those who did have spending limits circumvented them by splitting charges into multiple transactions, which is also prohibited.