Patrick Gannon: Pay attention to corruption in Washington County

Published 6:29 pm Tuesday, January 19, 2016

RALEIGH – Few stories should bother us more than the ones where public officials spend tax money for questionable expenses when that money should be used instead to educate children or provide other worthwhile public services.

According to an audit from State Auditor Beth Wood, that’s what happened in Washington County in eastern North Carolina, with a population of fewer than 13,000 residents and a poverty rate much higher than the state or nation as a whole.

The former superintendent of Washington County Schools, Joe Davis, spent more than $94,000 in public dollars on travel, meals and merchandise over a 33-month period without prior authorization from the Board of Education, a documented purpose or receipts for spending, according to the audit. (That’s nearly $3,000 a month on average). Davis, who was making $125,000 a year, left the county in mid-2015 and now heads a school district in Missouri.

The former superintendent spent $48,021 on hotel accommodations, airline tickets and car rental fees, rarely providing a business purpose and infrequently submitting itemized receipts. And, according to the audit, there was no evidence of prior written authorization by school board officials for the majority of the spending. Davis’ travel included 23 out-of-state destinations and 38 in-state trips. He went to Nashville, Tenn., four times and Asheville seven times. Davis spent an additional $27,000 on food and drinks during travel, local meetings and events.

The former schools chief, according to the audit, also spent nearly $16,000 in federal funds on entertainment, including $9,000 on inflatable bounce houses and $600 on a video game trailer, without federal approval.

According to the audit, those federal dollars should be spent to “improve teaching and learning in high-poverty schools … to meet challenging state academic achievement standards.” Davis ignored the advice of staff not to use the money for entertainment purposes, the audit said.

The district attorney in Washington County said recently that no charges would be filed against Davis. The Associated Press reported that the district attorney said the state financial crimes unit didn’t find any clear evidence of embezzlement or other fraud.

According to media reports, Davis wrote in a prepared statement that he had “no reservations about anything I spent.”

But the situation raises many questions, such as whether the superintendent actually spent the money that he was reimbursed for, whether he was reimbursed the correct amounts and whether the expenses were for legitimate school purposes.

The audit also called into question the oversight from the Board of Education. While other school systems have established travel policies, the Washington County board didn’t have such a policy for the superintendent, instead leaving oversight of travel costs to board chairmen. It would be safe to say that they either didn’t pay close enough attention or looked the other way. That’s the case in many situations where questionable spending by public officials comes to light.

Perhaps even more importantly, the news out of Washington County puts a small blemish on the traditional system of public education in North Carolina, which is fighting for more money amid increasing competition from charter and public schools.

Hopefully, all public school officials in this state know about the Washington County case and will work to prevent similar situations in the future by adopting and adhering to good policies.

They – and our school kids – can’t afford for it to happen again.

Patrick Gannon is editor of the Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh.