A St. Paul Public Schools employee used a district credit card to buy more than $800 in flowers at Bachman’s. A principal charged $1,600 high-end speakers in July. Another staffer charged more than $1,000 for yoga pants from Lululemon, an upscale athletic apparel company.

St. Paul schools employees hold 531 district credit cards and spent nearly $2.5 million over a six-month period last year. That’s well more that double the number of cardholders and nearly double the amount of spending in the Minneapolis School District. One St. Paul credit card is charged more than $10,000 for parking each month. District officials charged $60,000 for printers and other office hardware and spent thousands on travel over six months.

A Star Tribune review of the spending, however, showed St. Paul scrutinizes credit card spending far more than does the Minneapolis district. St. Paul is also dramatically tougher when it comes to making employees reimburse expenses that cannot be justified. Even St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva and other high-ranking officials have not been spared from repaying the district for meals and other modest purchases that couldn’t be justified.

“We maybe look at too much,” said Sun Wisneski, who oversees the district’s purchasing card program. “But there is no way we can just sample it. We are going to be missing too many things.”

In January, a Star Tribune review of Minneapolis showed school employees routinely failed to ­follow expense policies, including submitting receipts. In a sample of 270 transactions, nearly half were submitted without receipts, including some transactions at local retailers for more than $1,000.

After the Star Tribune’s report, Minneapolis school officials decided they would begin auditing all transactions, similar to St. Paul. Before the change, Minneapolis staffers reviewed only 20 percent of credit card transactions. The district also said it has given its 250 cardholders more training and will limit the use of cards if procedures are not followed.

Robust accounting

In St. Paul, the district has every itemized receipt attached to credit card statements from each employee. If there are no receipts, or a purchase does not follow district rules, a copy of a reimbursement check is attached to the documentation, along with any correspondence that the district sends to the employee.

“Sometimes people say ‘I lost the receipt. I don’t know how I can get it,’ ” Wisneski said. “I say, ‘I’m sorry, then you need to write a check.’ ”

Patrick Duffy, who used to be a principal in Minneapolis and is now the director of leadership development in St. Paul, recently traveled to New Orleans for district business.

He charged meals, Internet access and supplies on his district card, which are called p-cards. But he failed to turn in itemized receipts for some of the meals and a purchase at Office Max.

Duffy was told that he would have to pay up if he could not produce the receipts.

“Both accounts are temporarily closed until the missing receipts are submitted,” read an e-mail from Dave Trummer, with the district’s accounts payable department. “I understand you are new to the district and may not be aware of our p-card procedures.”

Wisneski said she would not be able to sleep at night if she were to miss accounting for even a $3 transaction.

“Three dollars can buy a notebook for a student,” Wisneski said. “It’s about the principle.”

Within a month, Duffy repaid the district $130.

“I didn’t know I had to have itemized receipts,” he said in an interview, adding that he did not always have to submit a detailed receipt when he worked at other districts. “The St. Paul folks were very clear about their procedures.”

Frugality questioned

Despite the tight controls, questionable purchases can get missed.

Asked by the Star Tribune why the athletic director purchased a dryer even though appliances are not allowable credit card purchases, Wisneski immediately asked her staff why that purchase had not been caught. Interrupting the interview, she called Gerald Keenan, the athletic director, to remind him of the policy.

“I thought the only rule was that I could only charge up to a certain amount, and I couldn’t go to Sam’s Club,” Keenan said. “I never liked the card to begin with. I was encouraged to use the darn thing.”

In the case of the parking and printing service charges, Wisneski said the district uses credit cards because the vendor prefers that to billing the district. But the district also benefits from making such large purchases. The district gets a 1.5 percent rebate from U.S. Bancorp on all credit card purchases.

Staffers have taken notice of the district’s tenacity in tracking down receipts and reviewing spending.

Last December, an employee at the Washington Technology Magnet School used her district credit card to charge $842 for more than 60 poinsettias and pots at ­Bachman’s.

“Please provide justification and purpose for the following transaction on your [credit card statement],” Trummer wrote.

“This was a fundraiser for our student leadership program,” the staffer wrote back. “I’m currently hospitalized with a kidney infection and will not be back to work until next Monday. Is it possible to get an extension on submitting my p-card documentation?”

Central High purchased the Lululemon yoga pants on Dec. 2 at the request of the girls’ gymnastics team and its coach, said Mary Beth Redmond, the school’s lead clerk. The girls, not the school, were to come up with the money to pay for the pants — which went with the basic uniform.

“They’re very nice,” Principal Mary Mackbee, whose credit card was used, said of the Lululemon pants. “Spiffy.”

The district’s purchasing-card policy states, however, that clothing or athletic equipment purchases of more than $1,000 are “unacceptable.”

Redmond speculated the card was used for a meet and that perhaps all the money had not been collected.

Ann Johnson, the principal at St. Anthony Park Elementary School, spent nearly $1,000 at Target on two wireless Bose speakers and two Sonos speakers. The next day, she purchased six smaller Bose speakers for about $100 each.

“I thought that was a reasonable price for a speaker that would be used on a daily basis,” Johnson said. She noted that she “maybe could have done a better job finding something else.”

These are the areas where Wisneski said she and her staff often ask questions about the proper use of taxpayer money.

“We have in our policy that you should try to be as frugal as possible. Spend money as if you were spending your own money,” Wisneski said. “I always feel like I am the taxpayers’ eyes.”

 

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.