DUBUQUE, Iowa – A TV news school spending investigation is revealing some questionable expenses in Iowa schools, and local education officials are scrambling to justify the costs.
Iowa’s KCRG submitted more than a dozen public information requests for bank statements detailing spending through school-issued credit cards in several districts, and what it found was a lot of money spent on pizza and other food.
The investigation into school procurement cards revealed that in 2016 alone several schools spent five or six figures on pizza, including $12,619 by Waterloo Schools, $7,312 by Iowa City Community School District, and $2,752 in the Marion Independent School District.
Those expenses, however, pale in comparison to the expenses tied to 115 procurement cards doled out to staff in Dubuque Community Schools, which racked up nearly $100,000 in food purchases since 2015, KCRG reports.
“Nearly $24,000 was paid to pizzerias alone,” according to the news site. “Popular establishments include, Hy-Vee ($32,975.50), Dominos ($6,177.95), and Jimmy Johns ($4,682.94).”
“Also on the district’s tab was a $92.63 charge at Tilted Kilt, a restaurant where waitresses wear revealing clothing, for a principal and five of his staff members to eat during a trip to the Character Plus National Character Education Conference in St. Charles, Missouri.”
KCRG highlighted just under 200 purchases by the district’s “re-engagement coaches” using the cards at fast food places including McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Taco Johns and others over the last three years.
Records also showed a $1,700 purchase at Executive Gift Shoppe to buy retirement gifts for staff during the same year the Dubuque Community Schools implemented budget cuts.
The news investigation revealed that while district policy requires periodic audits of procurement card spending, it’s never happened. Officials told KCRG the audits are unnecessary because the district has “strong financial controls in place.”
Dubuque superintendent Stan Rheingans argued that district spending is reviewed every year through a required audit, and the district’s auditor, the Dubuque-based Jim Kircher and Associates, has found no questionable spending in recent years.
He also argued that not all the money spent through the procurement cards comes from taxpayers.
“What you have to know about a P-card is not all of the dollars are general fund or taxpayer dollars,” he said. “A student group, maybe does a fundraiser, maybe the band is going to New York or maybe the student group is doing a women’s empowerment conference at Diamond JO, so they’ve raised their funds.”
Kirchner and Associated declined to comment on its auditing procedures or the district’s finances, but Denver, Iowa-based school auditor Keith Oltrogge pointed out that auditors don’t comb through all district spending, only a sample, and all funds controlled by school districts is considered taxpayer money.
“Basically the questionable spending is just the items that we noted on kind of a random sample basis and … we probably look at, you know, 10 percent of the transactions, if that,” Oltrogge told KCRG. “Technically even the revenues that come in from the gate receipts from a basketball or football game are taxpayer money, too, because they belong to the district and the district is owned by the taxpayers.”
The TV station reached out to the Dubuque school board about the district’s massive food bill, and board member Craig Beytien issued a prepared statement defending the transactions.
“Each and every use is document and must be justified,” he wrote. “I applaud our staff for the level of transparency with regard to tracking all expenditures and ensuring sound stewardship of taxpayer resources.”
District officials told KCRG they could not determine how much of the food related expenses were covered by student clubs or fundraising “without literally pulling every transaction by hand.”
Oltroggle contends that alone is a sign the district isn’t monitoring spending like it should.
“You would think that they could come up with some sort of an estimate,” he said.