Atlanta Public Schools’ audit finds risks with purchasing card system

Atlanta Public Schools' internal audit recently reviewed the district's purchasing card system and found areas for improvement. (AJC file photo)

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Atlanta Public Schools' internal audit recently reviewed the district's purchasing card system and found areas for improvement. (AJC file photo)

Audit found no fraud, but purchases of Chick-fil-A, Walmart gift cards ignored rules

An Atlanta Public Schools’ internal audit revealed concerns with how employees use purchasing cards, the latest review in recent years to pinpoint problems.

The analysis found no fraud, but auditors said some cardholders circumvented the approval process to buy items over the authorized spending amount.

Although district policy prohibits using the cards to buy gift cards for staff, the audit uncovered instances where cards were used to buy Walmart and Chick-fil-A gift cards as teacher incentives. Officials said donor money, not APS dollars, paid for the incentives, but purchasing cards shouldn’t be used for such expenses regardless of the funding source.

“It’s not that, ‘Oh, we think they’re doing a horrible job.’ This is just an opportunity to have another set of eyes look at a high-risk area,” said Connie Brown, the district’s executive director of internal compliance.

ExploreAudit finds closer watch needed on APS purchasing cards

Among the auditors’ findings: A purchasing card was used to pay for video streaming services for graduation ceremonies. The more than $10,000 cost was deemed a legitimate need, but the audit noted it should have gone through a procurement process.

One of the most common violations came from employees splitting up purchases from the same vendor in order to circumvent transaction limits. For example, auditors found two separate transactions made on the same date to purchase air filters.

“Each transaction totaled $1,948.80, just below the cardholder’s $2,000 limit,” the report noted.

The auditors recommended APS provide employees with more training about how to use purchasing cards and make guidelines more specific about acceptable purchases. They also advised APS do more work to flag suspect transactions and to follow an escalation process if employees repeatedly violate policies.

In a written statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the district said: “Atlanta Public Schools is committed to continuing its practice of being ethical and responsible stewards of public dollars, and is reinforcing district policies and practices related to the use of purchase cards.”

Public agencies use the cards to make it more efficient for staffers to purchase needed items, such as school supplies. It’s also aimed at reducing the reliance on petty cash funds.

The spending system is considered a high-risk area because of the potential for fraud or misuse. The APS audit team has examined the purchasing card program before. In 2018, it determined more oversight was needed.

There are 253 APS employees, including top administrators, principals and various directors and chiefs, who hold 406 purchasing cards, according to the district.

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The latest review examined a sampling of the 17,173 card transactions made between March 1, 2021, and Sept. 30, 2021. Purchases made during that period totaled nearly $5.8 million.

Auditors found that 42% of the transactions they studied violated at least one policy. The report did not specify how many purchases from that audit period were included in the auditor’s sample size, but Brown said her team only had the resources to examine a fraction of the more than 17,000 transactions.

The district has a process to approve purchases that exceed a cardholder’s spending limit, Chief Financial Officer Lisa Bracken told the school board’s audit committee in March. She said the district will do more training to make sure employees pay attention to those rules.

“I do think now it’s just changing mindsets. It’s showing we are serious about following these processes,” she said.