Jan. 21 of this year was marked by subzero conditions in the Chicago area.
But employees of Meadowview School in Grayslake warmed up that Friday night at Mickey Finn's Brewery in Libertyville, where a "staff party" was held.
The bill was $130, which initially was paid with a Grayslake Elementary District 46 debit card, but later was reimbursed by teachers.
District 46 Superintendent Ellen Correll told the Daily Herald and the Better Government Association that alcohol was not part of the tab.
However, Correll later acknowledged she based that assertion on "trust" rather than documentation for what was labeled only as a staff party. The receipt submitted to the district was not itemized, so it wasn't clear what exactly was purchased.
It's an example of what some District 46 board members say is vague oversight of the school system's two-year-old debit card program.
While critics do not believe the cards have been misused, they said changes are needed and recently started demanding a better accounting of the expenses.
Correll has acknowledged the flaws and said officials will tighten the program that began in 2009.
The BGA and the newspaper began reviewing employee card use recorded in more than 3,000 pages of documents after a couple of board members raised concerns in public. What the examination found was a pattern of murky or nonexistent spending justification and a lack of itemized receipts for a wide range of purchases.
"I can say this," board member Michael Carbone said. "I think the purchases of meals are obnoxious in the sense of there's a lot of meal orders and a lot of them are either lacking (itemized receipts) or the descriptions are very vague."
District 46's annual budget should start including a projection of debit card expenses and all revenue sources -- public and private -- that would cover them, Carbone said.
His concerns, echoed by two allies on the seven-member board, involve more than a sandwich or two.
The debit cards -- also called purchasing cards, or "p-cards" -- have been used by District 46 personnel during the past two years to ring up more than $800,000 in expenses, according to the Daily Herald/BGA review.
Most of the p-card expenses have been for office supplies, professional development, membership dues and other necessities for a school district. Nearly $50,000 has gone toward air travel, lodging and meals, records show.
Correll argues the district isn't necessarily spending more. Employees are using the cards for spending that had been more cumbersome and required more reimbursements and layers of paperwork, she said.
While she said all expenses -- as far as she knows -- were justified, Correll allowed that "we do need to do a better job with the itemized receipts."
She added: "I have spoken to our new business manager and we will be putting processes in place to handle this."
Spending at a variety of governmental agencies has come under a microscope in recent months following disclosures that Chicago Park District credit cards were used by agency executives for airline upgrades and pricey hotels, and that Chicago Housing Authority leaders used their in-house cards for meals at tony downtown restaurants. The latter controversy helped prompt Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to eliminate hundreds of cards at agencies under his control, and institute tighter controls.
Purchasing cards, meanwhile, are becoming more and more popular with schools and other local governments to streamline spending and eliminate paperwork. Employees typically need authorization to use the debit cards that often have varying spending limits.
Correll said there were 38 p-cards authorized at District 46 in the 2009-10 academic year, with administrators and secretaries as the primary users. A 15-page policy and procedure manual warns that personal and alcohol purchases are prohibited and that violators could face discipline or termination.
"P-card purchases should be made so that the district gains the maximum value and quality for each purchase," the manual states.
Not all of the p-card expenses in District 46 were covered by public funds, Correll said.
Certain expenditures were reimbursed by the local PTO, or by a "social" fund that teachers contribute $30 to annually, and was used for the Mickey Finn's party, Correll said. Other expenses have been covered by money from district soda machines.
However, who paid for what was not always evident in the records, and neither was the justification for many of the debit card expenses. Only by pressing Correll did the Daily Herald and BGA get those answers, underscoring the concerns of some of the District 46 board members.
Correll was asked to explain about 20 p-card expenses that were typical of the vagueness found in many of the 3,000-plus pages of documents. Here's a sampling of those purchases in which the accompanying documentation for each provided no detailed explanation about the purchase or its funding source:
•In June 2010, a Meadowview secretary didn't explain beyond "lunch" the expenditure of $233 at an Italian eatery in Round Lake Beach. Correll said the employees' tab ultimately was covered by their social fund.
•In May 2010, a Round Lake Beach bakery was paid $665 for what was noted only as "Donuts for Apple Week." Correll explained the charge on her card was for employee treats as "staff appreciation" and public money covered the expense.
•In April 2010, a secretary at Woodview School in Grayslake placed $394 on a p-card for "staff gifts/teacher appreciation" at a Round Lake custom screen-printing and embroidery business. Correll said soda purchases from a district vending machine in a teachers room covered the p-card reimbursement.
•In January 2010, about $442 was spent on food for a "staff luncheon" at Grayslake Middle School ordered from a Mexican eatery in the village. Correll said the PTO covered the winter celebration tab.
•In July 2009, a now-former operations and maintenance boss noted only "cookout" as a reason for spending $186 on 14 large avocados, watermelon and other food at a Round Lake grocery. There was no documentation detailing who was fed or how many. Correll said three or four cookouts are held annually at the district office for summer employees who provide reimbursement for the lunches.
Correll said the lack of itemized receipts or spending justification may have been due to employees trying to adjust to the p-card program.
"However, we did not have the needed follow-through in our business office," Correll added. "As we now have a business manager, that will change."
District 46 board President Ray Millington said he hasn't seen any problems with the p-cards, and is inclined to let the staff take care of the program. He noted the administration has been using the 15-page policy and procedure manual that details what's allowed and prohibited.
"We're not there to micromanage stuff," he said.
But District 46 board member Shannon Smigielski, who was elected in April, said more transparency is needed in what's provided to the board and to the public.
Smigielski, who previously criticized the number of employee meals she found on the p-cards, said there should be an official board policy so there are no gray areas for users. She said she doesn't believe the cards have been abused, but the lack of spending details can lead to questions.
With money tight at District 46 and other schools, Smigielski said, taxpayers should expect a proper tracking of p-card use -- and administrators should be vigilant.
Correll indicated the public should play a role in policing the debit cards.
Asked about the Mickey Finn's party and another gathering at a different restaurant-pub in Lake County, and how she could be sure no alcohol was purchased, Correll said residents "certainly would let me know if that was going on."
•This story was written and reported by Bob Susnjara of the Daily Herald and Robert Herguth of the Better Government Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog based in Chicago.