Nashua School District credit card policy strikes right balance

One of the daily challenges for municipal boards and committees is finding the right balance between setting policy and micromanaging those entrusted to carry it out.

We believe the Board of Education’s Finance and Operations Committee met that challenge last week when it agreed to recommend to the full board a policy governing the use of credit cards in the Nashua School District – a recommendation the board was expected to take up Tuesday night.

By and large, the proposed policy reaffirms administrative guidelines that have been in place since 2006, when the district tightened its practices in response to an investigation into the use of public funds for personal travel by then-Superintendent Julia Earl.

Under those guidelines, credit cards may be used by the superintendent, chief operating officer or other authorized individuals to purchase equipment and supplies, as well as to cover expenses related to district-approved travel. The users of the cards then must submit receipts and other documentation to the chief operating officer, who is responsible for overseeing the proper use of the district’s credit cards.

How much money are we talking about? A tiny fraction of the district’s $94.5 million budget. In 2011, for example, the School District used credit cards to cover about $36,000 in travel expenses, as well as roughly $10,000 for books and another $9,500 on school-related supplies.

Once committee members agreed there was no need to change the existing guidelines, the only remaining question pertained to the oversight role of board members.

In the end, after about an hour of discussion, the committee voted to recommend a policy whereby credit card purchases would be reviewed by the three-
member Finance and Operations Committee on a quarterly basis. That’s where the information would remain, unless circumstances dictated that it should be shared with the entire board.

That seems like a reasonable way to establish some checks and balances between the school board and the administration over a spending practice that in the wrong hands is open to abuse.

That appears to be what happened in the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District, where Superintendent Trevor Ebel resigned this spring after an independent audit uncovered irregularities in the district’s use of credit cards – including dubious charges for expensive hotel rooms, meals and limousine rides in conjunction with professional development conferences in Boston, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

That chain of events prompted Nashua school board members to request copies of the district’s policies governing credit card use earlier this summer. It also led to a special two-day series in The Telegraph (Aug. 26-27) that examined credit card policies in Nashua and its surrounding communities.

What we found is that credit card policies vary from district to district – from those with strict practices to those considerably more lax. We also found that the state Department of Education does not offer specific guidelines to school districts, so the state’s cities and towns are pretty much on their own.

Should the Nashua Board of Eduction adopt the credit card policy as recommended, perhaps it can serve as a model for other communities struggling to find the right balance between its school board and the administration.