ATLANTA – Big city school districts love to cry poverty every chance they get.

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They’re very skilled at selling the media on the idea that they’re barely getting by on spare change, mostly due to evil education budget cuts at the state level.

Then they turn around and spend money by the bucket on items that have no connection to student learning.

The Atlanta school district is a very good example.

Heading into fiscal year 2013, district officials published a budget plan that called for a $30 million reduction in overall spending, departmental budget cuts averaging 10 percent, a reduction in force of between 285 and 485 employees, and four planned furlough days where there would be no student instruction.

Times were tough, you know.

But somehow district employees managed to have a great time that year, with seven figures worth of food, drink and extensive travel, all courtesy of taxpayers.

District employees had a total of 1,189 transactions at hotels throughout the United States in 2012-13, for a total cost of $505,105.

They had 1,343 transactions with airlines, travel agencies and related businesses, costing a total of $245,333.

They had 3,054 transactions at restaurants throughout Georgia and the rest of the U.S., totaling $72,762. They had 50 transactions at various catering businesses totaling $100,566.

Perhaps those spending figures shouldn’t be surprising, coming from a district that gave us one of the largest, most notorious academic cheating scandals in the history of American education.

But one would think, with a greatly reduced budget and cuts for all departments (including a 7 percent cut to the Curriculum and Instruction Division) that they might have made an effort to cut down on the travel and free food a bit.

Perhaps shame and guilt are not common emotions for the people who operate Atlanta Public Schools.

EAGnews inspected spending documents for the Atlanta school district as part of our continuing series titled “Where Your School Dollars Go.” We inspect spending records of large school districts throughout the nation, in the hope of helping taxpayers understand how their local schools are actually spending their money, and inspiring citizens and local media to keep a close eye on district spending and hold school officials accountable.

Outrageous hotel spending

EAGnews asked Atlanta school officials to explain the various types of spending we came across for 2012-13, but received no response.

They argued that they had Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off so they needed another day to provide explanations. We granted them another day but they still never sent answers for most of our questions. So all we can tell you is how much they spent on what, without explanations.

Extensive and expensive travel seemed to be the biggest issue for the district during that school year.

The hotel tab included outrageously priced stays at some of the most ritzy and expensive hotels across the nation. The following are just a few examples:

There were five charges at the Andaz Savannah in Savannah, Georgia for $2,971. There was one transaction at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for $1,003.

There were 42 transactions at the Callaway Garden Lodge and Spa in Pine Mountain, Georgia, for a total of $18,825. There were 16 charges at Disney resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida for a total of $3,166.

There was one charge at the Embassy Suites in San Diego for $1,761 and one at the Embassy Suites in Philadelphia for $1,002.

There were two charges at Emily Morgan Hotels in San Antonio, Texas for $1,905. There were four charges at the Empire Hotel in New York City for $2,791.  There was one charge at the Four Points Hotel in Philadelphia for $3,000.

There was one charge at the Hilton in San Francisco for $2,016. There were 13 charges at the Hyatt Hotel at Olive 8 in Seattle for $9,322. There were five charges at the Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville for $3,677.

There was one charge at Inter-Continental Hotels in San Francisco for $2,485, 71 charges at the Jekyll Island Hotel in Jekyll Island, Georgia for $6,118, and eight charges at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C. for $6,798.

The list of hotel charges goes on and on, and the school district didn’t bother to offer us an explanation for more than half of a million dollars in unnecessary spending.

Based on our examinations of other districts, we would guess that most of the travel was related to professional development conferences for educators at fancy hotels in various cities. We would also bet that a fair number of the trips were “grant-funded,” which means they may have been paid for with grant money from Washington, D.C. or the Georgia state government.

As we’ve stated numerous before – so what? Federal and state grant money is still tax money, taken from the pockets of working Americans to fund a lot of waste at the school district level.

If conference attendance was absolutely necessary, Atlanta school employees could have stayed at much less expensive hotels. They could have also brought in educational experts to speak to them in their home district, saving a great deal of money.

And if the federal and state governments had any sense, they would have told Atlanta officials to use some or all of the grant money for general operations rather than wasteful travel, to make sure students were not shortchanged while employees partied it up at Disney or in San Diego or San Antonio.

Thousands of free meals

The district’s food tab seems a bit odd when compared to other districts.

In most districts a big chunk of the food spending will be for pizza or other popular items for school lunches. But we found little evidence to suggest that in Atlanta.

District personnel had 3,054 transactions at restaurants around the nation in 2012-13. The total came to a shameful $72,762, but the tabs for all but eight of those transactions came to less than $100. That suggests that small groups of employees enjoyed a lot of free dinners and lunches on the school district’s account, probably when traveling.

There were definitely some favorite eateries that got a lot of Atlanta school business. They included the the Gaylord Opryland Restaurant in Nashville (112 transactions), the Callaway Garden and Lodge restaurant in Pine Mountain, Georgia (68 transactions); Chick-Fil-A (31 transactions); Longhorn Steakhouse (29 transactions); Red Lobster (25 transactions); Renaissance Hotels restaurant in St. Louis (63 transactions); the Rosen Centre Food/Beverage in Orlando (28 transactions); Savor-McCormick Place in Chicago (19 transactions); Starbucks (67 transactions) and TGI Fridays (33 transactions).

Adult fun was definitely included on the expense sheet. There were 10 tabs at the Crystal Beer Parlor in Savannah, Georgia; 12 tabs at the Gordon Biersch Brewery in Louisville and 15 tabs at Hooters restaurants at various locations around the nation.

The district also had 540 charges with various catering companies, with 28 at Carlyle’s Corporate Catering for $10,006.

Other unexplained spending

We came across several other areas of questionable spending. Some of them may be reasonable, but it’s impossible to tell without the cooperation of school officials, and they’re not talking.

We would love to know why district officials spent $6.8 million in legal fees, or $330,000 on moving and storage fees, particularly with so many employees around who could help with moving – if they’re union contract allows such a thing.

The district also reported medical expenses of more than $1 million, which would usually be covered by insurance. It also lists a lawsuit payment of $154,111, which would normally be covered by the district’s liability insurance carrier.

There was also a mysterious payment of $118,444 to “Alison or Tim Caputo.”

The district also gave $54,650 to the Atlanta Civic Center, $25,000 to the Georgia Dome and $45,564 to the Georgia World Congress Center.

Why were all of the above payments made, and to what purpose? Your guess is as good as ours, because the people who run Atlanta schools obviously believe it’s none of the public’s business how they choose to spend our money.

Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report 

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