By Ashleigh Costello

RICHMOND, Va. – In the month since EAGnews released a report exposing lavish spending in Richmond Public Schools, district officials have been struggling for answers.

Our investigation began in June when we requested copies of Richmond’s check register and credit card statements for the 2010-11 school year. The effort was part of our continuing series “Where Your School Dollars Go.”

We revealed that the school district spent a whopping $448,997 on hotels, including numerous five star resorts, in 2010-11. Another $135,761 was spent on a California-based travel agency.

Our findings attracted the attention of multiple news agencies, including local CBS and ABC news affiliates and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

CBS 6 reporter Sandra Jones broke the story.  At the time, district spokesperson Felicia Cosby told CBS 6 “The information reported by EAG is not accurate.”

Cosby said the district acts as a fiscal agent for various state operated programs and as such, the check register includes payments for pass through activities.

In a follow up report with CBS 6, Cosby said the trips were justified and the spending was not excessive.

However, in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Cosby said school finance officials were still working to match payments to accounts “but that the process ‘would be time consuming.’”

School board member Kim Gray was amazed it would take any time at all for school officials to track the expenditures.

“In the computer and information age, it should already be there,” Gray told the Times-Dispatch. “Congress has a search engine for every travel expense. If Congress can do it, with billions of dollars at stake, the school division certainly can.”

We were thinking the exact same thing.

The waste continues

The widespread interest surrounding our initial report has launched further media inquiries into the Richmond district’s finances.

The district is now under investigation by CBS 6 for spending taxpayer dollars on pricey computer software that is not being used.  The district bought the software last year, but has yet to implement it.

The name of the product is School Dude and RPS paid $34,000 for a subscription, which has since expired. The system is designed to equip maintenance staff with portable technology, such as iPads.

In March of 2012, nine school district maintenance employees were sent to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to learn how to use School Dude.  The employees stayed in ocean front condos and ate at a nearby Brazilian Steakhouse.  The trip cost taxpayers $7,500.

CBS 6 asked Andy Hawkins, Chief Operating Officer of RPS, if the subscription had been wasted since it was never implemented over the past year.  Hawkins claimed that it’s simply a long process to learn about the system and put it to use.

However, other local school districts have been able to implement the software much faster.  The Chesterfield County school district had the software up and running in less than 30 days, CBS 6 reports.  The School Dude website even has a 60 day money back guarantee.

Former school board member Carol Wolfe told CBS 6 that she believes it was careless spending at a time when RPS should be watching every dime.

“As a school board member if I had found out about this, I would be raising hell,” said Wolfe.  “That’s amazing, that’s a waste and I hope our parents and our teachers would be upset with that.”

In the past, school board members have been unreceptive to cutting spending, said Gray, adding that “It’s been very difficult to push forward any new policies with the current school board and the current administration.”

Perhaps that’s all about to change.

Holding schools accountable

The November election brought seven new faces to Richmond’s nine-member school board.  Incumbents Kim Gray and Donald Coleman will be the only members returning.

Gray was optimistic about the future of the new board when speaking with the Times-Dispatch.

“We want what’s best for kids, and that is going to be the focus,” said Gray.  “I think that everybody is going to bring forward new ideas and improvements.  We’re going to have a better school system because of it.”

Taxpayers in Richmond will certainly be paying closer attention to how the new school board spends their hard-earned dollars.  For us, that means “mission accomplished.”

Our goal when releasing “Where Your School Dollars Go” stories has been to pull back the curtain on public school spending. In some districts we’re exposing the type of information that’s been hidden for decades. What we find and expose may be acceptable to the public and local media, or may prove to be disturbing.

But we believe the effort is worth it, considering the difficult financial conditions of many public school districts these days.  Many have been forced to layoff teachers, implement furlough days, increase class sizes and cut student programs due to budget deficits.

Is it okay for those districts to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on expensive travel, pricey hotels and huge restaurant bills? Ultimately that’s up to local taxpayers and voters. But they may never know enough to judge the situation unless someone goes to the trouble of unearthing and analyzing district spending records.

Richmond is not alone in its need for financial reform.  EAGnews spending reports have gained attention in Madison, Wisconsin; Flint, Michigan; and Orange County, Florida.

In Madison, EAG determined that district credit cards were used for at least $44,723 worth of hotel bills and $10,036 worth of restaurant bills in 2011.  These purchases came at a time when the district was making painful budget cuts, including teacher layoffs.

Even worse, it became clear that officials had a hard time keeping a close eye on credit card purchases.

In Flint, school officials spent an astonishing $195,083 at a handful of restaurants, including nearly $150,000 at Little Caesars Pizza, during the 2010-11 school year.  They also spent $47,421 at a number of very nice hotels around the country.

Orange County Superintendent Ronald Blocker received a total compensation of more than $2.9 million during his 12 years as superintendent, including $2.8 million in salary and $147,385 in performance incentive payments.

Only when the public is fully informed will a district be pressured to make the necessary changes that will put student needs before expensive staff travel.

That’s why we’re going to continue our “Where Your School Dollars Go” series.

After a few weeks on sabbatical, the series resumes tomorrow with a report on spending in the Buffalo, New York school district. The story includes an update on the amazing amount of taxpayer money spent on cosmetic surgery for teachers. Don’t miss it.

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