SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Syracuse school officials have cut roughly 1,000 jobs from the district’s payroll over the last five years, despite a general increase in overall spending.

spending report graphic nbDuring that same time, less than half of Syracuse City School District’s high school students graduated, and students in other grades lagged far behind state averages by virtually every measure, according to media reports and state data.

Despite the financial and academic hardships, an EAGnews review of the district’s check register and credit card statements for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years reveal that school officials spent a lot of money in many questionable ways.

They dropped more than a half million dollars on legal expenses, $1.1 million on police services, about $150,000 on hotels and travel expenses, $114,000 on employee cell phones, $32,000 on entertainment venues and about $18,000 on restaurant tabs.

Even more disturbing is the fact that 137 administrators and other employees made more than $100,000 in straight salary in 2012, which came to a combined total of $15.2 million. How can a district on such a tight budget justify those types of salaries?

EAGnews followed up with district officials for a more detailed explanation of the charges, and unlike many districts that have simply ignored our questions, Syracuse officials provided the rationale behind their spending.

Keep in mind that the check register and credit card statements only revealed a small sampling of district spending. The total Syracuse district budget in 2012-13 was $359 million.

Hotels, travel, restaurants

District spending records show hotel charges decreased from $121,347 to $102,973 between fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13, while spending on other travel expenses and restaurants increased from $39,914 to $51,064 and $13,105 to $18,500, respectively.

Many of the hotel stays were quite expensive, including $18,865 spent at an unidentified Holiday Inn in Sept. 2011, $16,587 spent at the “Coco Keys Hotel” and $28,425 at Pittsburgh’s Crown Plaza South in Nov. 2011, $14,127 at the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel in Oct. 2012, and $19,767 spent at the Indianapolis Hilton in Feb. 2013.

Between the two years, there were 36 other charges of $1,000 or more, at establishments like the Anaheim Desert Inn and Suites, the Ewing Courtyard by Marriott, Darien Lake Theme Park Resort, the Genesee Grand Hotel, the Inn at the Colonnade, as well as numerous Holiday Inns, Hampton Inns, Marriotts, Hiltons and other high-end hotels.

There were also more than 100 individual charges for under $1,000 each during the two years, for hotels in Buffalo, Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, Schenectady, Saratoga, Baltimore, Alexandria, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Denver.

EAGnews asked school officials to explain how those hotels are chosen and why travel is necessary.

The district’s chief financial officer Suzanne Slack responded that most of the travel was for employee professional conferences in various locations around the nation.

“All hotels were chosen by the conference hosts and were provided at a discounted per night rate ranging from $99 – $224 per night,” Slack wrote. “Conferences were part of grant funding requirements or conferences supporting district initiatives. Of the $161,000 (total for hotels and travel expenses in 2012-13), hotels totaled $52,218.79 and the balance was for transportation and related travel expenses. Of the $52,218.79 hotel expense, $33,894.90 was for hotel accommodations for student science competitions.”

Rooms costing three figures – particularly over $200 per night – hardly seem like a “discounted rate” to the average taxpayer.

The district’s travel expenses included $37,844 paid to “Advantage Travel” in 2011-12 and $47,597 in 2012-13. Travel agencies certainly make travel arrangements a lot easier, but do they add to the overall cost of the various trips?

District records show Syracuse schools also spent quite a bit on restaurants and catering services, primarily at pizza establishments in the city.

The most expensive food bills included $1,020 for Peppino’s Pizzeria and $1,100 for Papa John’s in Oct. 2011, $2,900 at Gregorio’s Pizza in March 2012, $1,500 at Ernie’s Lakeland Café in May 2012, $1,425 for Bianchi’s Pizza Pad in May 2012, another $1,944 at Papa John’s in Aug. 2012, another $2,000 at Ernie’s in April 2013, $1,628 at Original Italian Pizza in May 2013, and over $5,000 sent to Diamond Catering in April and May 2013.

EAGnews asked the district officials why they spent $7,000 on pizzerias in 2011-12 and $8,000 in 2012-13?

“The majority of these expenditures are for grant funded parent involvement activities under Title I including English Language Arts / Math Family Nights, Family Literacy Nights and various Parent University Program events. Remaining expenditures include food for Student Honor’s Night Banquet purchased with beverage commission monies the district receives as part of the vending machine pouring rights agreement,” Slack wrote.

It’s great when parents show up and participate in their children’s education. But does the school district have to feed them?

Legal bills

Legal expenses for Syracuse schools increased by nearly $60,000 between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 fiscal years, from $459,241 to $517,618, with the vast majority of the money going to the law firm of Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett & Reitz, P.C.

In 2011-12, the East Syracuse firm took in $409,171 in public tax dollars from Syracuse schools, and that total increased to $470,883 in 2012-13. The district paid four other law firms much smaller amounts both years. The remainder of the legal bills went toward arbitration expenses, according to district data.

Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett & Reitz, P.C. “provides advice, counsel and effective representation to public and private sector employers in the areas of education, labor relations and employment law,” according to the firm’s website.

We wonder how much money was spent on endless negotiations and haggling over issues with the district’s various labor unions.

The total legal spending in Syracuse schools is roughly the same amount spent by Buffalo Public Schools, which has double the budget and more than twice as many students.

Obviously, in this day and age, lawyers are necessary for the continued operation of large public entities like school districts. But we have to wonder if some districts with huge legal bills – like Syracuse – have become too accustomed to passing off routine work to lawyers that administrators could do themselves.

Computers

Over the last two years, district officials purchased $1,251,521 in new computer equipment. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, $469,397 was spent on Apple products, and $233,368 was spent on Dell products. The year prior, a total of $393,841 was paid to Apple, and $154,914 to Dell.

Considering the massive layoffs in Syracuse schools in recent years, it’s clear that district administrators chose technology upgrades over living and breathing educators to some degree.

EAGnews asked district officials to explain the technology spending in more detail.

“The school district is continuously upgrading the technology in schools. These upgrades include interactive white boards, laptops and laptop carts, iPads and appropriate licenses,” Slack wrote.

Cell phones

Employee cell phones were another significant expense in the district’s check registry. In 2012-13, school officials spent a total of $114,816 on cellular service. EAGnews followed up for more details on the charges.

“Approximately 250 employees have cell phones at any given point in time,” Slack wrote. “Syracuse employs over 3,500 staff serving over 21,000 students. We have 40+ buildings across the city and our building and central administrators are required to be accessible 24 hours per day.”

Accessibility is important, particularly for school administrators, but is it worth more than $9,000 a month, particularly during a period of employee layoffs? Shouldn’t non-educational expenses be the first to go, before teachers and programs that actually help students learn?

Syracuse school officials may be convinced cell phones for employees are a critical necessity, but their predecessors obviously managed without them for decades.

Top-dollar salaries

District employees also enjoy top-dollar salaries and benefit packages, despite the ongoing budget crisis and embarrassingly low student achievement. Pay data collected by the Empire Center shows the top five highest paid school employees in the district took home a combined $778,874 in 2012.

The highest paid employees included Superintendent Sharon Contreras ($223,878), Chief Operating Officer Jamie Alicea ($149,830), Chief Financial Officer Suzanne Slack ($138,188), Executive Director of Elementary Education Debra Schoening ($133,555), and teacher and coach John Hohm ($133,423).

In total, 137 district employees took home over $100,000 in salary – a combined $15.2 million – in 2012, according to the Empire Center.

So what did parents and taxpayers get for all that money? Not much in terms of student learning.

In the 2011-12 school year, only 20 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in English language arts, and only 21 percent were proficient in math. State education department data shows every single school in the district on some form of academic probation.

High school graduation rates were stagnant at about 50 percent.

Other miscellaneous charges

As the Syracuse school district’s legal expenses increased by almost $60,000 between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the amount district officials paid to local community centers to provide after school services for students was slashed by about the same amount.

“The district contracts with the Northeast Community Center and the Westcott Community Center to provide after-school programs for district students,” Syracuse schools CFO Slack wrote.

In 2011-12, the total amount Syracuse school officials contributed to the community centers was $270,989. Last year, they spent $211,189.

The cost of services provided by the Syracuse Police Department also increased by roughly $35,000 between 2011-12 and 2012-13, from about $619,000 to $654,000, while spending on rehabilitation services dropped dramatically from $16,948 in 2011-12 to $1,852 last year.

The total amount paid to numerous arts and entertainment venues increased slightly, from $31,930 to $32,257 over the last two school years.

In 2012-13, district officials wrote checks to the Corning Museum of Glass for $3,003, Syracuse Stage for $6,650, Uncle Sam’s Boat Tours for $1,445, the Palace Theater for $2,290, Kingdom Entertainment Company for $1,450, the Erie Boulevard Bowling Center for $2,420, and Light of the World Ballet for $1,500.

Smaller checks were issued to the Alliance Bank Stadium, Beaver Lake Nature Center, Brooklawn Golf Course, the Buffalo Zoo, and Space Walk. School officials also paid about $6,500 in numerous checks to “Friends of Rosamond Gifford Zoo,” the “Rosamond Gifford Zoo,” and “Rosamond Gifford Zoo to You.”

Syracuse CFO Slack told EAGnews, “The district takes pre-kindergarten students on field experiences to the zoo located in the City of Syracuse and utilizes the Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s traveling educational program ‘Zoo to You Program’ where professional zoo educators bring animals to our pre-kindergarten classrooms to increase awareness of the animal kingdom and encourage the participants to be environmentally conscious covering topics such as adaptations, habitats and endangered species.”

Field trips are great, and sometimes educational. But with the school struggling for money and students struggling academically, wouldn’t it be less expensive and wiser to keep them in their classrooms more frequently?

 Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report

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