School credit card use questioned
Publication Date: Friday May 3, 1996

SCHOOLS: School credit card use questioned

Paly newspaper raises debate about spending, oversight of expenses

An investigation by the Palo Alto High School student newspaper has found that school district administrators are not following policies regarding the use of district credit cards.

The newspaper, The Campanile, found that the administrators had used the cards to cover such expenses as a $408 tab at MacArthur Park for a bond construction committee gathering and $305 for food at Theo's restaurant.

Prior to being issued cards, administrators sign an agreement that credit cards are not to be used for purchases above $200 and will be used only for supplies, and travel and conference costs.

The newspaper, in an editorial, also questioned the judgment of some of the expenses given the district's recent budget cuts.

Responding to the April 29 Campanile article by student Ben Hewlett, Superintendent Jim Brown said this week he plans to have district's auditors look into the credit card spending. But, Brown staunchly defended district practices and pointed out that past audits, the last of which was done on June 30, 1995, "confirmed that our record keeping is sound. We've passed muster."

The school board voted to issue corporate credit cards to all 15 school principals, as well as 10 district administrators in November 1993. The district said the move would minimize paperwork and make it more convenient to make telephone or catalog orders.

Some school districts are reluctant to use credit cards for fear, among other things, of their potential for abuse. But when it approved the credit cards, the Palo Alto school board adopted policies that were intended to restrict their use.

According to the MasterCard agreements signed by each district card holder, "all purchases shall be limited to materials and supplies, (classroom or office supplies) and travel and conference expenses. Each purchase for materials and supplies should not exceed $200."

Each administrator gets a different credit limit, depending on their position. Most range between $1,000 and $3,000 a month. According to district policy, use of the credit card for personal expenses is prohibited, "whether or not the district is reimbursed."

But, according to credit statements obtained by The Campanile, purchases of more than $200 are made fairly regularly. Credit card receipts showed a $324 muffin order from Suzanne's Muffins, a $305 dinner at Theo's Restaurant in Palo Alto, two dinners--one for $250, the other for $408--at MacArthur Park last fall for the bond construction project's Program Review Committee, and a $212 order from Round Table Pizza.

Brown pointed out that the MacArthur Park dinners for the bond construction committee were pre-authorized.

Other purchases included $401 from Sears Roebuck, $851 for a field trip to Great America last June, and $285 for a stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero. Administrators also used credit cards to pay for meals at Il Fornaio, Left at Albuquerque, Su Hong Restaurant, and Peking Duck House and other local restaurants.

"We've always interpreted that ($200 cap) as a guideline," Brown said. "There are circumstances when people go over that," but he added, they should get prior authorization before doing so. He said he would not like to see the $200 limit abolished.

"I have a great deal of trust about the people that work in this school district. We have had no evidence that this is a problem. I don't think the assumption should be that people use these casually and without regard, and I don't think that's happening."

--Elizabeth Darling 

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