School board members relinquish credit cards

Published 1:28 pm Tuesday, October 4, 2011

GATESVILLE – The Gates County Board of Education voted Monday to take away its credit privileges, deciding that members would no longer possess school board credit cards.

The move comes after recently-retired Superintendent Dr. Zenobia Smallwood raised eyebrows last week by charging that a member of the board had used their school system credit card for personal expenses.

Board members met in a 70-minute executive session before the public meeting to discuss Smallwood’s accusation and other matters, subsequently emerging to enact their new policy.

Dale Saunders confirmed that he was the board member Smallwood accused. However, he adamantly denied her allegation.

“I will say that the statement was made knowing that there was no truth in it,” he said. “That attests to the character of the person who said that.”

Saunders did not elaborate on why he was named by Smallwood.

Member Leslie Byrum characterized the incident leading to Smallwood’s charge as an “innocent mistake.”

He said, “We can assure you that no funds from Gates County government, the state or federal governments were used for personal expenses.”

Board members agreed that in the absence of school system credit cards they will have to bear expenses incurred on official Gates County Schools business with their own funds and receive reimbursement afterwards.

“We’re sorry this happened. We just hope things will be better in the future,” Byrum said.

The issue of alleged credit card misuse surfaced at the Sept. 12 of the Gates County Board of Education during Smallwood’s remarks to the board.

“The limited finances that the schools have for the students should not be used for your personal expenses, whether it’s intentional or unintentional,” Smallwood said in a Sept. 21 press release sent to this newspaper.

When asked to elaborate, Smallwood would only say that use of certain Board members’ school system credit card had been used for a personal expense.  She added that had the issue involved a staff member, there would have been consequences.

After that story was published last week, this newspaper sought clarification on her claim there was possibly more than one school board member using the school system’s credit card for personal means.

Reached on Friday of last week, Smallwood said she was making reference to only one board member in her press release.

In an interview conducted prior to Monday’s meeting, Gates County School Board Chairman Doug Lilley said there was no fraudulent intent by the school board member, later identified as Saunders, upon their use of the credit card.

“We did not see anything illegal,” Lilley said. “No funds were expended by the school system. The school board member paid for it right away when the bill came in.”

Lilley added that the board was notified of the credit card charge late last year.

“Upon receiving that credit card statement and noticing the charge, our finance officer contacted the superintendent and we were made aware of it immediately,” Lilley said. “We contacted the finance officer to make sure no school funds were expended. All school board members were told that using a credit card issued by our school system for personal means is not standard operating procedure.”

Following a 5-0 vote of the board at Monday’s meeting, the members agreed to turn in their school-issued credit cards to the GCPS Finance Officer.

Lilley said the practice of school-issued credit cards to the school board members began prior to his election to the board. He said the use of such cards was limited to payment of motel/hotel rooms when board members attended out-of-town school-related conferences/training sessions.

Lilley added that GCPS Finance Officer Rube Blanchard will have documentation, complete with a signed avadavat, of the credit card charge that lead to the subsequent chain of events available to the public at the next scheduled meeting of the school board.