School board suspends Durham superintendent's credit card

School board suspends Durham superintendent's credit card

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Following a three-hour closed-door meeting, the Durham Public School Board says that it has suspended Superintendent Eric Becoats' school system-issued credit card.

At issue Monday was more than $21,000 in credit card charges Becoats racked up on the school system credit card over the last year.

In addition to suspending the card, the board unanimously directed the school attorney to continually review credit card use and whether Becoats should reimburse the district for any of the charges.

After the meeting, Becoats said the school system will "work on policies and procedures to enhance operations in the district."

"And I'm going to continue to focus on academic achievement, because at the end of the day, that's what's most important in making sure our children are progressing," Becoats said.

School Board Chair Heidi Carter said before the meeting she is "disturbed" by the spending she saw in Becoats' credit card statements. She said she is concerned about the spending habits and amount of travel.

The board recently received copies after media requested them through a public records request.

Carter expressed that the credit card is meant to be used for legitimate school business. She said the previous superintendent, Dr. Carl Harris, discontinued use of the card, but Becoats began using it again when he was hired in 2010.

WNCN read the credit card statements and receipts released by the school system as part of a public records request. The documents show Becoats used a Suntrust credit card with a $10,000 limit.

The documents released show Becoats' use during a 13 month period from July 2012 to July 2013.

According to the records, Becoats charged a total of $21,068.29 during that time. The smallest monthly total was $565.89 in January 2013. The largest monthly total was $3,230.12 in October 2012.

The expenses include rental cars, plane tickets, hotels and restaurants -- often charged during work-related trips that included Asheville, Chicago, Michigan, New York City, Nashville and Pinehurst.

There were at least two alcohol charges in the documentation.

On Jan. 25 and 26 at Le Parker Meridien in New York, there was a charge each day for Tanqueray, a brand of gin. Each cost $9.80.

DPS spokesperson Chrissy Pearson told WNCN, "The Tanqueray charge was disputed and later removed from the bill."

Other expenses charged range from candle holders, flowers and award plaques.

On at least three occasions, Becoats made out checks to Durham Public Schools from a State Employees Credit Union. The payments included $360 in November 2011, $160 in December 2012 and $60 in June 2013.

The documentation includes a note under the check for $160 that read, "reimbursement payments for charges made on credit card."

In December 2012, the National Alliance of Black School Educators issued a check to Durham Public Schools for $505.30 for "travel reimbursement." Becoats traveled to Nashville to receive the organization's Superintendent of the Year award.

Durham Public Schools spokesperson Chrissy Pearson said Becoats' use of the card was suspended a few weeks ago.

In a statement, Becoats said, "I welcome the opportunity to sit down with members of the Board and talk about ways to improve the financial oversight of the district credit card and other expenses."

The statement continued, "Ideally, such a conversation will lead to better management and stronger policies for the district. It is always my intent to work closely with the Board to address any concerns they may have."

Minnie Fort-Brown, the vice chair of the board and Natalie Beyer, board member, directed questions to Carter.

Board member Omega Curtis Parker said, "I need some more clarification before making a decision or commenting."

Board member Nancy Cox said "We act as a united body." She declined to express any opinion until the board meets.

Board members Leigh Bordley and Frederick Davis were not immediately available for comment.

Becoats has a base salary of $195,700 a year. In addition, he receives $600 a month in exchange for using his personal vehicle for in-county travel. Because of that travel pay, Becoats does not receive any reimbursement for his in-county travel costs. He is reimbursed for out of town travel in his vehicle, unless he uses a DPS vehicle.

Becoats also receives an additional $100 a month for cell phone expenses.

The district provides him with a laptop, Internet connection and printer at his home.

Last year, the school board extended Becoats' contract end date from June 30, 2104 to June 30, 2016.

Becoats' contract states he is entitled to 18 months salary or the remaining total left on his contract if he is terminated.

Earlier this year, Becoats was reprimanded for using a school bus and driver for personal use on June 7 and 8.

Becoats asked to be billed for the cost of the bus and driver and paid the invoice, but an investigation ruled the invoice amount did not cover the full cost. Becoats paid a revised invoice.

The concerns about Becoats' use of resources are not the first.

He spent seven years with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, serving his last two years there as assistant superintendent for planning and development.

In 2003 while serving as assistant superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Becoats was accused of using school system phones, computers, maps, facts and figures for his own personal consulting business, Queen Education Planning.

As result of the accusation, Becoats was suspended from his duties for one day and had his annual leave stripped. He was also asked to repay the school system $3,600.

"There's right and wrong," former CMS Board Member Larry Gauvreau was quoted as saying in 2010. "And when something's wrong and you're a senior executive, I think you need to be held accountable to that; especially when you're in a position like Dr. Becoats."

During the hiring process for the Durham superintendent position in 2010, School Board Member Heidi Carter told WNCN the Board became aware of the charges through a background check during the screening process, but the Board believed Becoats was exonerated.

She also said Becoats' strengths overshadowed any allegations like those made during his days in the CMS system.

Becoats resigned from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system in March 2004 before taking on the role of chief of staff for Guilford County Schools in July 2005.

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