School employees use ‘the card’ for fancy hotel stays
If you are a high-ranking School District employee and you don’t want the School Board to know what you are spending on fancy hotels and airfare, put it on “the card.”
This is Vero Beach 32963’s second investigation into use of the School District’s “procurement cards,” which function just like a credit card with an $8 million limit. The first investigation revealed nearly $500,000 has been paid to a mold remediation company since July, during the same period the district was denying there is a problem with mold in its schools.
This time around, when 32963 acquired copies of procurement card statements showing staff travel charges and showed the statements to three School Board members, one had a visceral reaction.
“This is very upsetting to me,” new board member Laura Zorc said. “The Waldorf? Give me a break. It’s easy to spend other people's money.”
Use of the district’s all-too-convenient charge cards is supposed to be governed by an 18-page procurement code, but School District officials have repeatedly flouted the written rules to conceal unauthorized spending.
Chief among the rules is that School Board members get a daily report of credit card purchases. But board members Charles Searcy and Shawn Frost said they’ve never seen a single bank statement detailing credit card spending, even though millions of dollars in purchases have been racked up on the cards.
From July to October, School District employees used the unsupervised charge cards to pay for nearly $40,000 in hotel and airfare expenses – but that is only a portion of what they spent on travel; the total cost is much higher because personal car use, food and entertainment are reimbursed later, creating a split system that does much to mask total travel expenditure.
Vero Beach 32963 looked closely at nine of the 134 credit-card travel purchases during the July-October period, asking for supporting documents, and found numerous additional procurement violations, showing that a lack of third-party oversight makes the cards ripe for abuse.
In mid-July, two employees from the Human Resources Department, Pamela Torres-Spivey and Amy Yeitter, went to Sarasota for a Florida Educational Risk Management Association conference. They stayed three nights at the oceanfront Lido Beach Resort paying $209 a night for their rooms, running up a hotel bill of $1,198.
Rules governing use of the School District charge cards require any expenditure over $1,000 to be pre-approved, and prohibit splitting a bill to keep individual amounts under the $1,000 threshold. But the Lido Beach Resort bill was split into two payments, a clear violation of the procurement code.
Also in mid-July, two employees from the Food & Nutrition Services Department, Director Patrick McCarty and Elizabeth Dykes, went to San Antonio, Texas, for the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference. They stayed five nights at the Grand Hyatt at $253 a night, racking up a $2,533.50 hotel bill.
There was no authorization to exceed the $1,000 cap, an infraction of the rules, but at least McCarty didn’t artificially divide the bill.
In late August, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources William Fritz and Director of Human Resources Edwina Suit stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando while attending a Human Resources Florida State Council conference, running up the charges that caught Zorc’s eye.
According to the hotel’s website, rooms at the Waldorf Astoria “exude sophistication with their warm décor and timeless elegance, offering a plethora of amenities for an unforgettable stay . . . [including] Italian marble bathrooms.”
The hotel has more than a dozen dining options, including the tony “Bull & Bear restaurant, serving a culinary journey of epic proportions and . . . [providing] a club-like warmth, compliments of its handsome furnishings and impeccable service.”
Because dining tabs are reported separately, it is not know which if any of the hotel restaurants the two district administrators dined at, but their room charges amounted to $1,224 for the three-day stay.
The bill was split, keeping individual amounts under the $1,000 cap. A deposit was paid before the convention and then the balance was charged at the end of the convention. Nevertheless, there were two procurement infractions on the trip.
All employees are required to fill out ahead of time a “request for temporary duty/travel authorization” form, but Fritz filled his out a month after the trip and no fellow-administrator gave authorization. Suit filled her request out more than a month later and Fritz gave permission for the trip after the fact.
In late October, two School Department employees stayed three nights at the 4-star Mission Inn Resort & Club at Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida, for $690. Again, no trip-leave authorization form was filed so it is unknown who traveled for what purpose, another violation of the rules governing card spending.
A Regions Bank statement identifies the card use in this case as stemming from Vero Beach High School, and the procurement code makes the principal of the school responsible for proper credit card use. But the district office apparently didn’t require any more specific documentation before paying the bill.
In mid-November, Storm Grove Middle School Principal Tosha Jones went to Tampa for a National Alliance of Black School Educators conference. The Downtown Embassy Suites bill totaled $1,436 but the charges were split, obscuring the total cost of the convention.
In addition, Jones’ travel form is unsigned, a violation of the rules, which makes it seem school principals are among upper echelon staff who can travel with no third-party oversight, in violation of the procurement card code.