Why $25,000 in food on Batavia school charge cards?
It wasn't the more than $1 million in purchases that caught Carl Dinwiddie's eye, but rather the nearly $25,000 in food costs tucked among all the spending.
After requesting a year's worth of invoices for the 97 purchase cards issued to Batavia Unit District 101 employees, he wanted to know why more than half the cards had been used at least once to cover meals or snacks. He also questioned other spending policies but was not satisfied with the district's response.
A Daily Herald analysis of the purchases shows $2,237 was spent on 29 trips to Panera, another $1,775 was spent on 18 visits to Jimmy John's, and almost $800 over the course of the year was spent at Dunkin' Donuts.
"They're not really being good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars," Dinwiddie said.
However, incoming Superintendent Lisa Hichens is convinced there are adequate safeguards.
"Everything gets checked by at least one other person. We have a very rigorous process," she said.
Dinwiddie called several purchases questionable. On one receipt, one of the cardholders bought $30 worth of boxed coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts along with two dozen breakfast pastries and then dropped another $2 for a cup of coffee to go.
"Why are they using the school district's credit card for a cup of coffee in the morning on the way to work? Why couldn't they just wait and get a cup from the box they just bought?" Dinwiddie asked. "You and I would have to pay for that ourselves, and any business wouldn't let you do that if you tried to expense it."
Dinwiddie, the retired regional operations chief for the National Transportation Safety Board, became interested in the school district's finances and spending policies after hearing about the school board's plan to increase the district's property tax levy last year. He sent a letter to the school board asking what areas it looked into cutting before increasing the levy. He got back a "terse, rude" form letter that didn't answer his question, he said.
"I probably would have gone away if there had been a sincere response," Dinwiddie said. "But it was like a slap in the face."
School district officials said use of the cards is monitored, spending is vetted and receipts are required. Hichens, the current principal at Batavia High School who will soon take over as the district's superintendent for the retiring Jack Barshinger, said the food was for meetings, traveling staff and sometimes student groups.
Some of the costs are covered by student activity fees and not just tax dollars, she said.
"It would concern me if we didn't have a process," she said. "But I feel there are checks and balances in place, and I have no reason to believe they are not working."
It's unclear how much monitoring of purchase card expenditures is done by the school board. Hichens said she was unsure if the board received itemized bills of each card every month. Attempts to reach board leaders were unsuccessful.
Dinwiddie said the school board is complacent, pointing to a recent Daily Herald investigation that uncovered a $1,929.75 tab at Morton's Steakhouse in Chicago for a dinner attended by several of the district's board members, administrators and some family members during a statewide school leadership conference in November.
At the time, Barshinger said that meal is usually picked up by a district vendor.
"We found out late that that vendor was not going to do that this year," Barshinger said. "That was one expenditure that was not planned."
In the 12 months before that dinner tab, Barshinger spent $1,483 on food, according to invoices related to his purchase card. At $15,000, Barshinger had one of the highest spending limits. Most cards have a limit of $3,000 to $6,000. The lowest limit is $250, but one administrative assistant has a spending limit of $250,000, according to the invoices.
Dinwiddie said the district's purchase card records show taxpayers aren't benefiting from economy of scale. There are several occasions where cards are used to purchase multiple items from the same company on the same day. Dinwiddie said that means either multiple trips to a store or inflated shipping costs. There are other occasions when multiple cards were used on the same day to purchase goods from the same company.
Some governments and businesses have moved away from
purchase cards in an attempt to control costs. Instead, they require employees to pay for items and submit requests for reimbursement or justify each expense in advance.
Solid oversight is the key to a successful purchase card program for government agencies, said Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago-based Civic Federation, a government finance research organization. Purchase cards can result in "significant operational savings" by cutting manpower costs and reducing paperwork, he said.
"There needs to be a well-articulated standard for use and control or review," Msall said. "The use of purchase cards does not eliminate, and probably increases, the need for oversight by the administration and school board officials."
Dinwiddie said he believes the biggest problem he has is that there is no standard for control and review of purchases by the cardholders.
Hichens uses multiple sets of eyes to examine her spending before submitting bills but said she doesn't know if other cardholders go to similar lengths.
"We're not creating new expenses because we have P cards. We're just making purchases differently," Hichens said.
But Dinwiddie said access to purchase cards by so many employees makes it easier to spend tax dollars without having to justify the expense first.
"I don't think they work real hard at cutting costs," he said. "Want something? Just charge it."
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