August 15, 2012 10:36:29 AM
Beginning this fall, Mississippi teachers will have a new way to purchase classroom supplies -- state-issued procurement cards which will function similarly to debit cards.
After much wrangling, state legislators passed an amendment to Senate Bill 2761 in May authorizing the distribution of the cards to 35,000 teachers this fall.
The money will come from an $8-million Educational Enhancement Fund, issued by the state and administered by the Mississippi Department of Education to participating school districts to be divided evenly among eligible teachers. The funds each district receives are based upon student enrollment.
Cards will range from $175 to $225 and will expire at the end of each school year, with unused funds carried over the following year for reallocation.
The Columbus Municipal School District will receive $73,872, to be divided between 333 non-federally-funded teachers, CMSD Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Hughes said Tuesday. Each teacher will receive a card in late September or October that will allow them to spend up to $222 on instructional supplies.
Teachers who receive Title 1 and Title 2 funds, and teachers who need to spend more than $222, will have to use the old method of submitting a purchase order to the district, then waiting for a check to be issued.
The new procurement system should hasten the purchase process, freeing up thousands of man-hours in school accounting departments statewide, said Todd Ivey, bureau manager of the Mississippi Department of Education's Office of School Finances.
That news comes as a relief to Hughes and finance officers across the state, who often must process multiple purchase orders per teacher each year.
While the system will work on the surface like a pre-paid credit card, it comes with an internal set of checks and balances, Ivey said.
Teachers will be required to sign a contract stating they understand they are receiving state funds for "allowable purchases" of instructional supplies. Receipts must be kept for five years, and random audits will be conducted.
The cards will not bear the teachers' names, and they will not require passwords or personal identification codes. Instead, each card will bear an account number registered to the recipient and recorded in the district office.
The procurement cards will be issued by a bank, which Ivey declined to name, and purchases will be viewable by auditors online at any time. If anything seems suspicious, the teacher may be asked to provide receipts to prove the purchase was valid.
Both Hughes and Ivey admitted the cards come with an inherent problem -- by eliminating the elaborate purchase order system, the state is opening up the potential for abuse.
"Teachers will be responsible for their card," Hughes said. "The district won't be responsible. In years past, submitting requisitions made sure they didn't go buy a gift card at Applebee's. Now, it's all on the teachers. The district can wash its hands of it."
Cards will automatically be blocked at certain places, like gas stations and restaurants, and if the card is lost or stolen, teachers are expected to notify the district so it can be canceled.
"Do I have a concern the cards could be misused? Yes, I do," Ivey said. "Common sense tells you there will be a percentage of misuse. You've got 35,000 people out there using the cards. Somebody more than likely or not is going to misuse their card, but I think it will be minuscule."
One of the most compelling reasons not to take the risk is the possibility of losing one's teaching license over a relatively small sum of money, he said, adding that the state department of education is in favor of the new cards.
"It simplifies the process," Ivey said. "It allows teachers, if they want to purchase something, to not have to wait however long it takes to get a purchase order produced. Even if it's two days, they don't have to wait that two days."
Legislators had originally considered giving checks to teachers, but the concept was quickly scuttled because the funds would have been subject to tax withholding and MDE officials felt it would be "almost impossible" for them to cut 35,000 checks.
After the bill died in legislative session, a legislature-created task force on school efficiencies began examining ways to make districts more efficient, and the idea of procurement cards emerged as a way to eliminate districts as middle men in teachers' supply purchases.
"It was a win-win situation," Ivey said. "It was a vehicle to put money directly into teachers' hands and also reduced the workload in school districts' business offices."
He said to his knowledge, Mississippi is the first state to try the procurement card system for teachers, and while it's not 100 percent fail-proof, he believes it will work as long as teachers use common sense and remember that they are using state money designated solely for instructional supplies.
"Until it reaches orbit, we won't know if it worked or not," he said. "As each day progresses, we feel more and more confident this thing is going to work. We want to be seen as being on the cutting edge. The intended use is ultimately to help the teacher out."
The procurement cards were offered to districts on an optional basis this year, with three districts choosing not to opt-in, said Ivey, who declined to name those districts. If all goes well, next year the cards will be mandatory.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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