Harris calls for expanded audit of education spending

Rep. Andy Harris said Thursday that he will request an expanded review of the Maryland Department of Education's use of federal funds after an audit found that the state may have to return up to $540,000 in misspent stimulus dollars and money designated for poor children.

Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said he will use his seat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Department of Education's budget to press for greater scrutiny.

"What it uncovered is a pattern of waste, fraud and abuse of federal tax dollars," Harris said of the audit. "Whenever you see that kind of pattern, there is no reason to believe that pattern didn't precede the period of the audit or persist subsequent to the period of the audit."

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso sought to play down the findings, which found that the district improperly used federal funds provided by the state for $99 chicken dinners, a makeover day and two cruises in the Inner Harbor in 2009 and 2010.

He pointed out that auditors looked at $15 million out of $112 million in expenses.

"The findings that have become controversial are a small part of how the dollars were used in Baltimore," he said in an email. "The audit was not scathing. It was actually complimentary to Maryland. But if you focus on the error findings, within a frame of scandal, you will always obscure the hard work of schools."

Two other members of Maryland's congressional delegation joined the chorus of state lawmakers voicing criticism of how Baltimore schools spent some of the money.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a statement that he was "very disappointed" by the audit findings.

"The misuse of taxpayer funds provided to support our schools is simply unacceptable," he said. "Our tax dollars must be spent for the purposes for which they were intended in an effective and efficient manner. It is imperative that the City school system now take immediate action to ensure that such funds are used only to support the educational programs our students so urgently need."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said: "I supported federal stimulus funding to create jobs by putting more teachers in classrooms and avoiding the layoffs of others — not for harbor cruises, catered dinners and theater tickets.

"Funding for some of Baltimore's neediest children was simply squandered and transparency requirements were completely disregarded," he said in the statement. "This abuse of tax dollars is one example of why many Americans mistrust government."

City school officials say that federal grant guidelines can be confusing and that they provided guidance, training and support to staff during the 2010-2011 school year.

Alonso added: "Here, we had three schools that made mistakes in the context of trying to involve parents, which has been a hallmark of our reform, and paid off enormously for the district."

The Prince George's County school system also drew criticism in the Office of the Inspector General report for buying principals watches — and velvet pouches to protect the timepieces from scratches — as well as a $222 pencil sharpener and other purchases.

Republican state lawmakers focused attention on the audit Wednesday, saying it showed the need for more detailed accounting of government spending.

Ruppersberger said Thursday that "Baltimore City schools must immediately comply with the recommendations contained in the audit."

The audit was issued to the Maryland Education Department in January, and a spokesman said it has sent a response to Washington. State officials maintain that $142,453 of the unallowable expenditures were allowed, and say they can substantiate $369,981 of the expenses auditors found inadequately supported. State officials also challenged the report's criticism of their oversight role.

While the audit is labeled "final," the federal department has not decided how it will respond, according to a spokesman for the federal agency. That would include any demands for repayment.

Harris said he thinks the funds "need to be repaid."

"They belong to the federal taxpayers, not to the people in the Department of Education here in Maryland who abused those programs," he said.