IT Department

Jerome Oberlton, the head of Baltimore's Information Technology Department, is leaving for Dallas. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / April 26, 2012)

Despite tightening school budgets and a perpetual rallying cry for more funding, Baltimore school administrators spent roughly $500,000 during the past year and a half on expenses such as a $7,300 office retreat at a downtown hotel, $300-per-night stays at hotels, and a $1,000 dinner at an exclusive members-only club, credit card statements show.

City school officials defend the majority of the credit card expenditures — outlined in statements and receipts obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request — as "the cost of doing business," saying only a handful of "outliers" show questionable judgment or disregard for taxpayer money.

"We are working around the clock to engage our partners and move our agenda forward," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "Every transaction has a business purpose in mind."

Among those transactions were a $450-per-person office retreat at the downtown Hilton, during which the 16 employees of the Information Technology Department were also treated to a $500 dinner at Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao; and a $264 lunch for students at Hooter's.

A review of credit card transactions and receipts by The Sun found that the bulk of the expenditures — about $300,000, generated by 16 central office employees — were made under a new procurement-card program that has operated with virtually no controls or oversight since it began in January 2011.

Card statements show that many of the expenditures violated the school system's own protocols and restrictions for use of the cards, such as a prohibition on using them for travel or to buy gifts for employees.

Amid Sun inquiries, city school officials have acknowledged that they took a series of corrective actions:

•The head of the Information Technology Department will have to personally reimburse the system $5,000 for charges school officials deemed inappropriate.

•The district has launched an investigation into several restaurant charges made by a former employee — including a $136 visit to the Greene Turtle on his last day on the job.

•The school system's new chief financial officer has begun to overhaul the guidelines for using the credit cards, after The Sun found that many cardholders weren't following the rules.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso acknowledged a "tension between controls and guidance" in the program he created last year.

Still, the schools chief — whose card, sometimes used by his assistant, incurred a $66.77 charge to Victoria's Secret on Valentine's Day that was later removed after the system reported it as fraudulent — defended the program.

"Overall, people use the program in exactly the way we thought they were going to," Alonso said in an interview. "There's always going to be a margin where you give people flexibility, and they're not always going to use it in the way that you want [them to]."

Other school officials also defended much of the cardholders' spending choices under the new program.

Edwards said the $13,600 of catering from David & Dad's and Jay's Catering brought into the central office reflects a "fellowshipping around food that has existed in city schools for decades."

The $67,000 in travel to conferences for a handful of office administrators, including an $8,000 trip to Las Vegas for a bullying conference, reflects the system's "overinvestment in professional development," she said.

And Edwards said that when a school administrator took a group of high school students to Hooter's during a student leadership conference in Atlanta, they didn't eat in the main dining room, where waitresses were wearing their trademark skimpy uniforms, but rather in a separate area served by a fully clothed manager.

Still, groups who scrutinize the spending of taxpayer money said the charges illustrate what can happen with loose oversight.

"It's clear that whatever the checks and balances in place are, they aren't working," said James Browning, regional director of Common Cause Mid-Atlantic, a government watchdog group. "And it seems that for many of these expenses, there should be approval and disapproval before they're ever made."