Thursday, December 07, 2006

Catholic board has just one credit card


The London region's largest Catholic school board has only one corporate credit card.

That's 3,199 fewer than its public counterpart, which grabbed headlines yesterday after Ontario's Auditor General, in his annual report on government spending, suggested the board has issued an excessive number of cards.

With 3,200 such cards in circulation, nearly half the Thames Valley District school board staff -- from executives to custodians -- have them.

But at the London District Catholic school board, the only authorized credit-card user is the executive secretary to the education director, said Tim Holmes, the board's business superintendent.

"It's really just to make hotel reservations for trustees and senior executives," he said. "We only have one."

Auditor General Jim McCarter randomly chose four school boards to study, including Thames, in his report.

Without specifying which board spent which, he cited a laundry list of eye-popping purchases charged to the cards, including one teacher who spent $52,000 over two years including $4,000 on school breaks on DVDs, eyeglasses and Christmas lights.

McCarter suggested an excessive number of Thames staffers pack the cards, noting 15 per cent hadn't been used in more than a year. He recommended the cards be limited "only to employees who need them to fulfill their duties," to prevent risk of improper use.

Although the cards are issued for school-related business, such as buying classroom supplies, Thames board education director Bill Bryce said the board has allowed card use for purchases such as gifts for retiring staff, as long as the cost is quickly repaid.

But if any of the Catholic board's 2,000 employees need to get supplies or work- related items, they use a purchase-order system, said Holmes.

The employee makes the request to the board's purchasing department, which, if approved, makes out a purchase order to take to a store.

Thames trustees say their board's use of the cards dates back to the four-board merger that created the board in the 1990s, when it was considered a more cost-effective move than using petty cash.

Holmes said he'd be reluctant to go to a such a system, issuing purchasing or so-called "P-cards" to employees, but can see the rationale for it.

"I wouldn't comment on how any other board conducts its operations, but I can tell you I have been under considerable pressure since I've been here to introduce P-cards to make them available to schools and staff," he said.

"There are major advantages in using such cards," he said, citing the reduced time it takes to handle a purchase.

Staff at Thames Valley used the cards for $5 million in purchases in 2004-05, the equivalent of about $26,000 a day over the course of that school year.

Holmes said those numbers aren't shocking.

"It doesn't sound too high," he said. "All boards spend a lot of money on supplies because they are essential," he said.

In response to the auditor's report, Bryce at the Thames board said there was no misuse of public money or breach of trust, but that the board may have to rethink allowing certain card uses.

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