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City school credit, procurement cards show culture of spending

Nearly $500,000 in charges include expensive dinners, extensive travel, and student lunch at Hooter's

August 25, 2012|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Receipts show that several of the cardholders paid hundreds of dollars in sales tax, though the system is a tax-exempt organization.

Victor de la Paz, hired in July as the school system's chief financial officer, said the city's guidelines are "outdated" and its training "low-quality."

City school officials said that supervisors reviewed and approved all expenditures, but de la Paz said the district plans to begin "random quality checks" to ensure that purchases are appropriate.

"We expect that the person using the card exercises good judgment, but we owe it to our employees to set some realistic parameters," de la Paz said. "We're not like other districts, and we have to make sure it reflects the needs of Baltimore City."

Procurement card programs are used in districts across Maryland, but counties like Baltimore and Anne Arundel spend millions of dollars on the cards, held by hundreds of employees, because they use them for larger purchases like new school furniture and district-wide office supplies.

Other school systems' programs have stricter rules and oversight, requiring extensive documentation before any purchases are made.

For example, in Howard County, which served as a model for the city's procurement card program, the county has limitations on purchases such as food, which is only allowed during all-day, required meetings. And employees who travel are reimbursed using federal per diem standards.

Employee ordered to repay system

City school officials say most problems with the program are isolated incidents.

"We have to remind people that they are using resources entrusted to them by the citizens and that they understand that just because it might be good intent, it might not be right — or look right," Edwards said. "But we believe there's almost always a purpose. And it always has to do with the work of children."

City school officials refused to disclose the specifics of the $5,000 worth of charges that Jerome Oberlton, the head of the Information Technology Department, was told to personally repay after The Sun's inquiries.

About $4,700 worth of transactions made by Oberlton's department included trips to retail stores like Bath & Body Works, Ross, Walmart, the Dollar Tree and BJ's Wholesale Club to buy snacks and refreshments, and gifts and decorations for holiday banquets, birthdays and baby shower celebrations, records show.

Other charges from that office included a $7,300 office retreat, a $500 dinner at the Inner Harbor's Fogo de Chao, and a $500 quarterly meeting for staff at Paradise Indian Cuisine.

Oberlton, whose controversial $250,000 renovation of his executive suite was detailed by The Sun earlier this year, declined to comment through a city schools spokeswoman.

Edwards said the Information Technology Department's cards were reassigned to people who could make more "mature decisions."

Additionally, officials could not explain charges one employee made at area restaurants last summer. On June 15, records show he made two transactions at the Los Amigos restaurant, totaling $219, and a $110 visit to Mount Washington Tavern the same day. On June 28, his last day, he spent $136 at the Greene Turtle.

Edwards said that the system did not believe the charges were valid, and the employee — who charged a total of $3,500 to his card between April and June of last year — submitted no documentation for them. The system is investigating.

School officials also declined to respond to repeated inquiries from The Sun about how the card used by Alonso's assistant, which noted the only fraudulent charges among the procurement cards, was compromised.

Alonso said that despite the incidents of inappropriate expenditures, he did not believe the school system should micromanage how departments choose to spend their budgets "as long as it's about the work and about getting it done the right way.

"These are a fraction of a budget, are budget-approved expenses and categories," he said. "The expectation is at the end of the day, the [educational] outcomes improve."

erica.green@baltsun.com

By the numbers

Some of the expenses on the city school administrators' credit cards include:

A $264 lunch for students at Hooter's in Atlanta.

•A $450-per-person office retreat at the downtown Hilton for 16 employees of the Information Technology Department, including a $500 dinner at Fogo de Chao.

$13,600 total of catering from David & Dad's and Jay's Catering brought into the central office.

A $1,000 dinner at the Center Club for city schools CEO Andrés Alonso and the school board to iron out details of his new contract.

A $190 dinner at the Prime Rib and a $345 dinner at Ruth's Chris for Alonso and the teachers union leadership to discuss the new teachers union contract.

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