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For a district with a deficit and lots of layoffs, Milwaukee Public Schools spent a ton on non-essentials in 2010-11

Jun 14, 2013 by

MILWAUKEE – Milwaukee Public Schools had massive budget deficits in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years which prompted the layoffs of hundreds of teachers.

But at the same time the district was spending large amounts of money for non-essential items, including $331,071 for lodging and related fees at many pricey hotels across the nation; $150,441 on cell phones for school staff members; $117,895 on airline travel; $113,551 on restaurant tabs; $353,522 to move items around the district; $132,614 to publish a quarterly recreation guide, and $348,000 for real estate marketing.

What does that say about district priorities?

School officials typically argue much of the money spent on travel and other activities comes via federal or state grants, and must be used for specific purposes. They also point out that many professional conferences and workshops are required by the state.

So what does that say about federal and state education priorities?

The folks in Washington, D.C. and Madison give schools millions of dollars every year that must be spent on travel and other non-essentials, when local districts barely have enough money to provide basic instruction for students.

Couldn’t some of that money be redirected to help avoid painful budget cuts, at least during lean financial years? Has anyone ever suggested that to state or federal officials?

The blame can’t all be placed on government bureaucrats and their spending rules. Local school districts still spend a lot of their allotted tax dollars on non-essentials, and then complain that they don’t get enough assistance from the state or local taxpayers.

EAGnews spent several weeks inspecting the check registry from MPS for the 2010-11 school year. We only requested information from the 2011-12 school year, to provide more up-to-date numbers, but district officials provided us with the wrong data.

Only the money spent on airlines was from 2011-12.

District officials were polite and courteous when we requested explanations for various expenses. Unfortunately most of their explanations came in short sentences or paragraphs, without many details, so we can only offer limited reasons for many of the expenditures.

Happy travelers

MPS SpendingMPS had 120 charges at various hotels around the nation in 2010-11, many for multiple employees staying in different suites at very nice hotels.  The total tab, as noted above, came to a whopping $331,071.

In most cases the hotels were the site of professional conferences that school employees attended. As far as we know, there is no rule that says they had to stay at conference sites. Less expensive hotels are usually available nearby.

Grant money was generally used to pay for the trips. Of the 22 hotel tabs that we asked the district to provide specific information about, only six were paid with district funds while the rest were covered with grant money.

Much of the “travel” spending was done right at home in Milwaukee.

The district spent $22,132 on the MPS Language and Unique Summer Symposium at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Milwaukee Airport. The conference was for special education “intervention” training in reading and math, according to the district. The money, all from grants, was spent on meeting rooms and food for 600 staff members.

Another $23,796 was spent on a “differentiated instruction training” session at the same hotel. The money was spent on meeting rooms  and food for 200 teachers, according to the district.

The district indicated that the hotel space was necessary due to “space constraints” on campus.  That makes us wonder – in the entire Milwaukee school district, with hundreds of buildings, was there not a space big enough to accommodate a meeting of 200 people?

The most expensive outing of the school year came at the Leadership Summit and Institute for Staff Development Conference at the San Francisco Marriott. It cost the district $39,106 in grant money for 37 staff members to attend, which is well over $1,000 per participant.

Another $21,030 in grant money paid for “26 teachers and related staff” to attend an American History teaching conference at the Old Town Hilton in Alexandria, Virginia.  A total of $19,594 in grant money was spent to send 48 staffers to a No Child Left Behind conference at the Doubletree Hotel in Oak Brook, Illinois in 2011.

Several trips funded with district money were pretty pricey, considering they only included a few staff members.

The district paid $3,558 for lodging for five staff members who attended the 2011 National TAP Conference at the Beverly Hilton in New York City. Another $3,195 was paid to send four staffers to the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Training at the Hilton in New York City.

The district also paid $2,404 for lodging for seven staffers at the “International Baccalaureate MYP Areas of Interaction Training” at the Sheraton Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.

Other destinations for school employees included Orlando, Memphis, Houston, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Miami Beach, Atlanta, Tampa and Salt Lake City.

MPS had a total of 340 charges with different airlines in 2011-12, for a total of $117,895. There was another $10,145 in “agent fees” tacked onto that, indicating that the district had assistance in booking its flights.

The airline dollar figures were the only 2011-12 figures that were provided by the district.

A lot of district money tossed around

While most of the travel costs were covered with grant money, EAGnews found several examples where a lot of district money was spent on questionable items.

One obvious item was the district cell phone bill, which totaled $150,441 in the 2010-11 school year.

District officials were unable to say how many employees have been issued cell phones, claiming we didn’t give them enough time to contact all 166 schools in the district.

“The phones are provided for employees who need to be contacted after hours and those who are not based at single locations,” a district official wrote in a statement. “Typical examples include school principals, teachers who provide services to homebound students (or) students in the hospital, and therapists who provide services to students with special needs at multiple schools.”

There’s no doubt that cell phones come in handy for those employees, but in tough financial times, priorities have to be established. Was this the best possible use of $150,441? How did various school employees function 15 -20 years ago, when there were no cell phones?

And why doesn’t the district have a central database identifying everyone with a cell phone?

We also have to wonder about the $132,614 in district money that was spent to publish “a quarterly recreation guide sent to all households in the city of Milwaukee.” That sounds like a nice service, but was it a necessary expense at a time when the district was scraping for operating funds?

Another $353,522 in district money was spent at C. Coakley Relocation Systems Inc. and Federal Companies for “expenses for moving items from one building to another.”

Are they kidding? MPS has how many thousands of employees on its payroll? Some of them couldn’t be used to move things “from one building to another,” to save the district a great deal of money? Are the employee’s union contracts so constricted that they couldn’t be prevailed upon to help with some moving?

Then there’s this one – $348,000 in district money spent on “real estate marketing for unused properties.” If it costs this much, do they really need to market the properties? Can’t they just leave them vacant for a few years and save a lot of money?

MPS also paid out a whopping $451,829 (district and grant money) to the Milwaukee Police Department for “expenses for school resource officers and after-school patrols.” This is obviously a necessary expense, but we wonder if some of the duties could have been performed by non-union security companies at a lesser cost?

The district rang up $673,029 in legal costs. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if most of those costs could be avoided?

Food for thought

The district also spent $113,551 on restaurant tabs, as well.

A total of $35,993 was spent at the Cork N Cleaver restaurant for food for “teachers and related staff” attending six different training sessions. The money came from grants.

The district also spent $16,597 at Deliciously Different Catering for 15 teacher training sessions, professional development planning sessions and a breakfast for graduates. Of that total, $3,967 was funded by the district.

Another $1,921 went to Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc. for board room and administration meeting beverages. That was district funded.

Finally, $683 in grant money was spent at Big River Breweries Inc. for the “Student Bill of Rights” luncheon. There were 31 attendees.

For a district with a deficit and lots of layoffs, Milwaukee Public Schools spent a ton on non-essentials in 2010-11 – powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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