Maxed out

New York

City's school spending practices dinged for cash card misuse

A receipt photocopy from a school's p-card purchase that officials say was created only after the school was audited. Principals and teachers spent thousands of dollars from their city-issued cash cards on purchases that they were later unable to justify, including furniture, Kindles and $200 worth of movie tickets, according to an audit released today by Comptroller John Liu. Liu found that of the $130,000 in audited transactions, $85,551 was spent illicitly. Receipts were unaccounted for, transaction logs didn't match spending records, and, in one case, pizza receipts appeared to have been doctored to make up for the missing documentation. Liu's office targeted 500 receipts from five high schools that had suspicious records. The selected sample represented just a slice of the $17.2 million that city schools spent using the debit cards in 2011, called procurement cards, or p-cards. The city adopted the purchasing method in 2003 to provide more flexibility over budget spending. A teacher can use p-cards to pay for admission into museums or zoos for class trips; a school, meanwhile, could use them to quickly buy a new ink cartridge at a Staples instead of ordering through a vendor, which takes longer and costs more in processing fees. Liu's audit concluded that the flexibility had come in exchange for lax oversight. Although the city requires that schools follow considerable compliance when using the cards, Liu's report suggests that the audited cardholders were not being required to follow the rules. Cardholders must file receipts and fill out transaction logs detailing why the purchases were made. To maintain a tax exempt status, cardholders must complete a form at the time of their purchase. Some types of meals are banned from being expensed to the p-cards. And for individual purchases over $250, cardholders are required to first solicit bids from at least three vendors before deciding on the lowest-priced options Sixty-three of the 541 audited transactions — worth about $30,000 — did not have documentation that proved it was an "educational need." That includes $775 on five Kindle from Amazon.com, $194 in movie tickets from Costco.com and two sofabeds from Target worth nearly $700.