Buffalo district’s explanations for travel expenses don’t explain very much

December 1, 2012

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Kyle Olson Kyle Olson

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By Steve Gunn
EAGnews.org

BUFFALO, N.Y. – An EAGnews report published earlier this week, regarding the spending habits of the Buffalo school district, said that district officials failed to offer explanations for the nearly $200,000 worth of travel expenditures mentioned in the story.

As it turns out, the district did respond with explanations for all of the spending recorded on their check register and credit card statements in 2011. But the message did not reach the EAGnews office on time for publication.

A district official sent an emailed response on Monday, but later realized, after the story was published on Wednesday, that she transposed a letter in the email address and the communication never went through.

So the record is straight on that point.

As for the responses themselves, there isn’t much to report that EAG hasn’t heard from other districts.

Most of the major travel expenditures were for staff members attending various professional conferences around the nation. And the amounts spent at hotels on those trips were not trivial.

For instance, the $7,541 spent at the Hyatt Regency in Atlantic City on July 11, 2011 was apparently for a group of employees to attend the Middle College National Consortium. The $4,975 spent at the Residence Inn Downtown Tampa on Feb.  3, 2011 was for employees to attend the National Title 1 Conference.

That’s quite a bit of money for out-of-town conferences, and there were a lot of them in 2011.

Overall we found 199 credit card transactions at various hotels around the nation in 2011, totaling $80,784. We discovered 24 checks written to another set of hotels, totaling $47,704. We found 181 transactions with various airlines, totaling $60,805.

With a few limousine rides and other extras added in, the district’s one-year travel tab came to nearly $200,000.

To be fair, at least some of the money used for travel probably came in the form of state or federal grants (although district officials never specified that). That hardly makes any difference. Tax dollars are tax dollars and waste is waste.

Considering the district’s $50 million budget deficit, did the school board closely inspect each of these conferences to determine whether the information gained would be worth the travel expense? Did the district only send a minimum number of employees to each conference?  Did the district do its best to find the least expensive airline fare for officials flying around the nation?

Some cash-strapped schools around the nation have temporarily banned employee travel. Did the Buffalo school board ever consider such a policy?

Why did the employees have to stay in so many pricey hotels? Were there no comfortable Super 8s in the region that might have driven down travel costs significantly?

The district’s finance controller, Geoffrey Pritchard, told WGRZ-TV that the employees stay at the hotels where the conferences are held. He suggested that it may have been too expensive for them to stay at other hotels with lower rates.

“If we had to put them up at a different hotel that might be cheaper somewhere else, we’d have to shuttle them back and forth, and that cost there alone would probably be the difference between the two,” Pritchard was quoted as saying.

He said “probably.” That suggests that nobody ever looked closely to determine the actual difference in cost.

Then there’s the district’s infamous cosmetic surgery program, which pays all the costs for nips and tucks and other procedures for district employees. This inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars cost a total of $2.7 million in 2011.

One school representative appeared on the Fox News Channel on Friday and promised that the program, which has cost the district as much as $9 million per year in the past, would be cancelled when a new teachers union collective bargaining contract is negotiated.

But the district has not had a union contract since 2004, and neither the union nor the school board seem terribly eager to negotiate one. That’s not surprising from the union’s perspective. Why would it want a new contract when terms of the old one are still in effect and provide such lucrative benefits?

But we would have expected the school board to be screaming bloody murder about this annual and absurd expense, and appeal to citizens to complain to the union about the cost.

We see no evidence of that happening.

Our guess is that, despite the huge financial problems plaguing the Buffalo district, the general attitude is “business as usual.” That’s probably because the teachers union in the district, under the direction of legendary boss Phil Rumore, is extremely powerful.

Labor costs, no matter how outlandish, are rarely questioned in school districts with dominant teachers unions.

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