City schools' credit card statements offer a glimpse into the "cost of doing business"

Credit card scrutiny began in the spring

  • First grade teachers Rachelle Rasmussen, left, and Michele Baugher prepare Baugher's classroom at Colgate Elementary School for the first day of school.
First grade teachers Rachelle Rasmussen, left, and Michele… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
August 27, 2012|By Erica L. Green

In the last year, as Baltimore city schools' budgetary decisions -- $14 million in overtime, generous leave payouts, a renovated IT Department -- have faced heightened scrutiny, officials have defended much of their spending as "the cost of doing business."

In April, The Baltimore Sun sought to get a better picture of what exactly some of that business was -- and several sources informed us that credit card and procurement card statements, which outlined day-to-day activities at the system's central headquarters would do so.

We began a four-month task by requesting credit and procurement card statements showing activity by central office staff from 2009 through 2011, through a Maryland Public Information Act Request in April. The inches-thick accordian folder was produced in mid-June.

The system returned hard-copy statements from Bank of America cards, which were used prior to a new Procurement Card ("P-Card") program that started in January 2011. We also received the statements for those cards through 2011. When we inquired about redactions, we learned that school activity had been omitted -- and we'd need to go ask for that (clearly public information) too.

By the end of July, we had requested and received statements through June 2012 and receipts for certain cardholders whose card expenditures The Sun wanted to further review.

The Sun will be posting online the files that the city school system provided us for 2012, the only ones provided electronically.

The system also had compiled spreadsheets separating city schools CEO Andres Alonso's expenditures from everyone else's (of note: the schools chief has most of his travel expenses reimbursed by event organizers, down to his extra leg room in flights), and his office had also gone the extra mile to outline all of the transactions by office, and memos used colorful graphs showing which office spent the most.

A few Sun reporters and I began sifting through thousands of records, which Alonso told WJZ-13 on Sunday he also did "because I  knew the story was coming...and found a handful of expenses where [he said] 'Why would someone do that?'"

They found the same such expenses, as evidenced by the fact that there was a justification given for each one that we were to raise, and school officials acknowleged them in The Sun's story on the expenditures Sunday.

Others we raised, recognizing that a program that allowed school officials to spend thousands in a second was experiencing growing pains. This was evident after a review of the system's P-Card rules, when paired against the expenses, illustrated a complete disregard for the guidelines that were to govern the program's growth.

There were other expenses like media subsciptions, conference registration fees, that were in line with the system's rules. Those that were not, the system said resulted from an "outdated" and "unrealistic" guide -- that went through its eighth revision in March. 

There were very few that immediately jumped out as having directly impacted students. For example, the city schools police force spent about $2,000 taking a group of underprivileged students Christmas shopping last year for its "Shop with a Cop" program (which we also wrote about).

The Bank of America cards, primarily used by Alonso and the school board, don't have such guidelines -- so they reflected choices.

This endeavor was part of a series of reports The Sun has published about government's handling and spending of taxpayer money--from the amount spent on crabcakes in the mayor's skybox, to the mileage charged for a city councilwoman's mileage.

In the last two budgetary cycles, the schools chief has proclaimed that "every dollar matters," to schools. And with the system about to embark on campaign to manage more than $1 billion for school facilities, we thought the public would agree.

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