It started with Victoria’s Secret.
The two roughly $500 charges to a Beaufort County School District credit card caught the interest of a growing group of concerned citizens looking into purchases made by Beaufort County School District credit cardholders.
Credit card transactions totaling more than $100 are required by state law to be be listed in a monthly spending transparency report and posted to the district’s website.
Citizen outcry over the past three months about some purchases has sparked outrage, questions and a flurry of emails from members of the public, prompting Superintendent Jeff Moss to propose a new, more detailed report format at the Beaufort County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night.
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If you’ve got to scratch your head and ask, ‘What is this talking about?’ you have to wonder if the district wants this information to be seen.
Richard Eckstrom, S.C. comptroller general
▪ Beaufort High School took faculty to Dataw Island for their Christmas celebration last December. Cost: $3,542.75
▪ An athletic banquet taco bar was catered by Moe’s in May at River Ridge Academy. Cost: $3,160.62
▪ A student golf team hosted a banquet at Sanctuary Golf Club last December. Cost: $230.40
▪ Lunch came from HoneyBaked Ham & Cafe for training of classified staff at the district’s central office in May. Cost: $458.46
Many of the charges that have been questioned are for staff appreciation, end-of-year celebrations, parent engagement, student fundraisers and field trips, Moss said in the video. Some transactions are paid for with student activity funds, which are generated by individual schools through fundraisers, booster clubs, parent-teacher organizations and field trip participation fees.
“All of these things occur, and that’s what is represented in all of these charges,” he said.
Through an open-records request, the district provided The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette with documentation of the Victoria’s Secret charges made in 2015, which were identified as fraudulent and reimbursed.
But thousands of transactions are still unexplained.
That wouldn’t be the case at Horry County Schools.
That district has a computer system available to the public at no charge to look up relevant documentation, such as receipts, for specific transactions, said district spokeswoman Teal Harding.
Horry County Schools’ reports are also listed by cardholder, so the public can tell which schools or department cards, of which there are more than 200, are racking up the most charges.
Beaufort County School District issues far fewer cards. One is assigned to each school and district office department for a total of 52 cards.
Still, when the newspapers requested the annual amount charged on each credit card through the state Freedom of Information Act, district officials estimated producing the information for a single year would require 10 hours of work at $21 an hour.
In the aftermath of Moss’ ethics scandal, an issue that unfolded nearly two years ago and continues to dog the district on questions of transparency, trust and leadership, Citizens Advocating Responsible Education formed and continues to persistently hound the district and school board on a variety of issues. CARE member Fran Bisi has taken the lead on the credit card campaign, and others, including county Councilman Rick Caporale, have joined the crusade calling for the district to submit to a forensic audit of its spending.
“We hopefully don’t need to go down the road of guessing at what is occurring,” Moss said in the video. “Let’s get the facts.”
The problem for Bisi is that the reports, in their current form, do not provide details, so all one can do is guess at the purpose of the $30 million in expenses that were charged to the cards last fiscal year.
A state survey of the 10 largest school districts’ spending reports by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found Beaufort County School District’s current report format among the least transparent.
While not explicitly required by state law, including transactions less than $100, purchase descriptions and negative transactions — to indicate fraudulent or returned items, as was the case for the Victoria’s Secret charges — provides a more accurate picture of the district’s credit card spending, said South Carolina’s comptroller general Richard Eckstrom.
His agency plays an advisory role role in helping districts comply with the law, though it has almost no enforcement power and cannot issue penalties.
Eckstrom reviewed Beaufort County School District’s transparency reports, at the request of the newspapers. The lack of transaction descriptions jumped out to him.
“It’s information the public has an absolute right to know,” Eckstrom said. “If you’ve got to scratch your head and ask, ‘What is this talking about?’ you have to wonder if the district wants this information to be seen.”
Under Moss’ proposed new reporting format, these details would now be included. He asked the board Tuesday night for other formatting suggestions to be submitted to him before the next board meeting on Aug. 1.
The district’s credit card usage and consideration of a forensic audit will be discussed at the board’s Finance and Operations Committee meeting, which will meet at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 10 at the district office.
To look at Beaufort County School District’s credit card spending, go to http://bit.ly/2gOboRd. The first section of the report details the district’s check register. The credit card statements are further below.