Beaufort County school board votes to review one year of district credit card spending

After months of probing questions, flung accusations and scrambled responses from Beaufort County School District officials about the district’s credit card spending, the Beaufort County Board of Education voted at Tuesday night’s board meeting to hire an external auditor to review transactions from the most recent year.

The six board members who voted in favor of the external audit — Mary Cordray, Geri Kinton, Earl Campbell, Evva Anderson, Bill Payne and Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, all who typically align with Superintendent Jeff Moss — said they hope their vote will put an end to the issue that has dragged on since CARE instigated the discussion last spring.

The citizen advocacy group began combing through the district’s finances, firing off email after email on what they saw as questionable credit card purchases.

Many of the charges had logical explanations. For example, two charges to Victoria’s Secret in 2015, were fraudulent. Other charges stemmed from student fundraisers or teacher appreciation — purchases that do not violate district policy — but opened a Pandora’s box in a district already dogged by issues of trust in its leadership, even catching the attention of four county councilmen.

“What I’m hearing from people is ‘Are these things really true?’” Kinton said. “I explain it and they’re relieved and it’s not getting out there. This is the only way to show that these accusations and allegations are false.”

But for the four dissenting votes — board members JoAnn Orischak, David Striebinger, Joseph Dunkle and Christina Gwozdz — the board’s Tuesday night agreement to cover a single year’s worth of transactions was not enough. Motions to expand the time period under review failed.

“This is a motion to delve into (credit cards) only,” Orischak said. “Perhaps there’s another area that’s also worth our while.”

Given the district’s increasing student enrollment, crowded classrooms and longer-term plan to build more schools, Orischak said she would like an auditor to also review construction spending.

Tonya Crosby, the district’s chief financial officer, pointed out that some construction spending is already charged to a district credit card and would be included in the audit.

Gwozdz mentioned employee reimbursement, which includes travel, as another area to review.

John Dowling, who is running for the open District 6 seat in a special Oct. 17 election, agreed with the dissenters, urging the board to look at more than credit card spending during the meeting’s public comment period.

“If (the audit) is restricted to (credit cards), you’re not looking at 91 percent of budget,” Dowling said.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the district charged about $30 million to about 50 credit cards. The district’s entire annual budget for that time period was about $336 million.

“I believe that is the logical first step to determine if we need to take any further action down the road,” Cordray said.

Another first step could have been to hire a consultant to define the scope of the audit. That was voted on last month and failed 5-5. In a rare move for board chairman Campbell, who typically aligns himself with the board’s majority, he voted last month with the minority.

Asked why he changed his vote Tuesday night, Campbell noted the number of calls he’s received about the issue and said, “I think we need to get this over and done with. I don’t want to see this dragging.”

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer