KENOSHA, Wis. – In a recent email to EAGnews, a Kenosha school administrator wrote that the “district has taken drastic measures in the past couple of years to reduce expenses (and) operate more efficiently.”

Kenosha TMJ screen grab (2)We certainly hope that’s the case, but the evidence may suggest otherwise.

An examination of the district’s check register and credit card statements for the 2011-12 school year reveal some interesting expenditures, including more than $500,000 at various restaurants, more than $150,000 at hotels around the nation and world, and more than $130,000 on various forms of travel.

The restaurant list included jaw-dropping tab of $256,626 at Rocky Rococo and $177,666 at the Spaghetti Factory.

The travel tab included an amazing 162 charges at Mayfair Rent-A-Car for a total of $43,740. There was also a $10,287 stay at the Disney Resort in Florida, an $11,679 stay at the Empire Hotel in New York City, and two trips to Germany where the hotel bills totaled $4,969.

We offered the school district the opportunity to explain the various expenses, but officials declined, explaining that “we do not have the manpower to research and provide an explanation for so many items. This would take a great deal of time to pull each of those 1,454 records, review the support, and provide a report to you.”

District officials did find the time to respond to WTMJ-TV news, which took our research and produced a news story that aired Thursday night and can be viewed by clicking the screen below.

School officials told the television station that the expenditures we found were not unusual for a district of their size, and they didn’t appreciate our research.

“I’m just a little disturbed by these types of reports,” Superintendent Michele Hancock told the television station.

Kyle Olson, publisher of EAGnews, said school officials should not be surprised or upset by this type of attention. He said the goal of the analysis was to draw attention to everyday school spending, a topic that is frequently ignored by the public and mainstream media.

There are probably school administrators and board members in the Kenosha district who have no idea where a lot of this money is going or why. That’s pretty common in large government bureaucracies. Maybe now they will take a look and decide whether all the spending is justified, or whether adjustments could be made.

“We feel that taxpayers don’t really know where their tax dollars are going,” Olson told the television station. “We want to actually open up the books, go line-bv-line  through all the expenditures, and show them to taxpayers.”

What’s so disturbing about that?

This story is the second in a five-part series focused on spending in selected Wisconsin school districts.

Bon Appetit!

There are many good reasons for close analysis of school spending.

A good example comes from the Kenosha district’s food budget, which included $256,626 spent at Rocky Rococo, a pizza restaurant, in 2011-12. District officials told the television station that the pizza was served to students. We have to wonder if that amount of money could have gone farther if it hadn’t been invested in expensive pizza orders.

Perhaps a discerning school board member will consider that possibility and ask a few questions.

We were under the initial impression that the $177,666 spent at the Spaghetti Factory was a food expense, but district officials told the television station that it was actually rent for a building used for early learning. Is that a reasonable rate for rent? Could the district find a better deal and still meet its needs?

There were many smaller but still significant expenses on the district’s restaurant tab. There were 47 checks and credit card charges at Derango’s – another pizza place – for a total of $23,240. Thirteen checks were written to Francine’s Fine Catering for $8,233. There were 25 credit card charges to Panera Bread  for $3,352.  There were 43 charges at Pizza Hut for a total of $4,641.

There were 10 checks written to Southport Pantry, a deli-style catering service, for $2,211. There were 15 credit card charges at Subway totaling $1,661. There were 24 credit card charges at Cousins Subs for $2,291.

There were only four checks written to the Bull and Bear Eatery, but they added up to $1,810.  There were three visits to Nick-N- Willy’s for a total of $1,737.

Large one-time tabs included $1,753 at the Hob Nob Restaurant, Ella’s Deli and Ice Cream Parlor ($845), Fazoli’s ($521), Golden Ox ($280), Jimano’s Pizza ($606), Kaiser’s Pizza and Pub ($255),  Kentucky Fried Chicken ($538), Marina Gardens ($421), Qdoba ($295), Rio Grande ($933), Rosati’s of Kenosha ($782), Ruffalos II ($200), Villa D’Carlo ($223), Trolly Dogs ($264) and Tenutas Liquor and Deli ($553).

Were all those food expenses necessary? Will anybody in the district ask that question and demand an answer?

Disney, Grand Canyon and Germany

kenoshaspendingsamplesWe’ve learned that most public school districts pay for a lot of travel, usually for professional conferences for staff. The staff members frequently stay at very nice – and very expensive – hotels.

Kenosha is no exception, based on its 2011-12 financial statements.

The district’s total hotel tab came to $153,038. There were some pretty pricey trips driving that total up.

District personnel actually had two stays at the Disney Resort in Florida in 2011-12, and we wish we could explain why the cost was so different. Six credit card charges on Nov. 11, 2011 came to $1,200. But six more charges, on April 5, 2012, totaled $10,287.

There were six charges at the Empire Hotel in New York City on July 16, 2011 for $11,679. There were seven charges at the Gaylord Texas Hotel on April 4, 2012 for $4,221. There were 13 charges at the Sheraton Denver on May 4, 2012 for $4,439. There were nine charges at the Madison Concourse on April 30, 2012 for $3,184.

There were three charges at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis on July 21, 2011 for $2,435. There were nine charges at the Inter-Continental Hotels of Illinois on July 22, 2011 for $2,415. There were three charges at the Hilton Hotel (location listed only as Minnesota) on July 10, 2011 for $2,031. There were two charges at the Embassy Suites in Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 29, 2012 for $1,281.

Several single charges at hotels also deserve attention. They included $2,280 at the Days Inn in LaCrosse on June 2, 2012;$1,035 at the Country Inn Monona in Madison on June 3, 2012; $1,299 at the Marriott (no city listed) on July 15, 2011; $5,344 at the Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon on Sept. 30, 2011, and another $2,574 at the Phantom Ranch on Nov. 10, 2011.

The district also spent $2,439 at the Plaza Inn and Suites (no city listed) on June 30, 2012; $1,380 at the Sheraton Commander Hotel (no city listed) on May 10, 2012; $1,659 at the Stoney Creek Inn (no city listed) on Dec. 28, 2011 and $1,305 at the Timber Ridge Lodge in Lake Geneva on June 5, 2012.

There were also two trips to Germany which included two charges at the Jugendaestehaus Muenchen in Munich on April 27, 2012 and May 1, 2012 for a total of $4,215. There were also two smaller charges at the Babelfish Hostel in Wuerzburg on April 30 and May 10, 2012, for a total of $754.

We wonder if anybody in the school district has closely inspected all of these hotel expenses and asked whether all of them were absolutely necessary.

Frequent fliers – and car renters

The Kenosha district’s travel transportation tab came to $130,743.

Airline costs accounted for most of that. There were a total of 239 charges with various airlines for a total of $81,146.

United Airlines made the most money off the district, pulling in $17,240. The district also spent $10,275 on AirTran, $8,268 on Frontier, $5,887 on American, $3,002 on US Airways, $2,803 on Delta, $2,407 on Southwest, and $2,241 on Continental.

As mentioned above, the district also had 162 charges at Mayfair Rent-A-Car for a total of $43,740. That’s a lot more money for car rental than we’ve seen in other school districts. That amount of money would go a long way toward hiring a full-time teacher for the district, which has laid off numerous teachers in recent years.

Perhaps someone should ask whether all of the rental cars were necessary, or whether the money could have been spent in a more useful manner.

We also found 10 charges with Jones Travel and Tour for $26,555.

It should be noted that many school districts cover many of their travel costs with state and federal grant money. To us it makes no difference. It’s still tax money that came out of Americans’ pockets. Since Kenosha officials didn’t offer any details, we have no way of knowing what expenses were paid for with grant money.

Miscellaneous expenses

The Kenosha district spent $76,699 on cell phones in 2011-12. That’s probably enough money to cover the salaries of two first-year teachers. Just who in the district has cell phones, and why do they need them? Has anyone in the district posed that question recently?

The district also spent $4,506 on Milwaukee Brewers baseball games, $17,261 on a surf and bike shop called Southport Rigging, $4,930 at the Cave of the Mounds natural landmark, $2,196 at a t-shirt launching company called War Machine, $3,746 at the Guttormsen Recreation Center bowling lanes, $2,142 at the Cinemark Theater, $1,800 at Bestway Limousine, $22,385 on the Kenosha Simmons Baseball Organization and $1,982 at Six Flag Great America.

Some of these expenses may have been paid for from various special funds, and some may have been reimbursed to the school district. We have no way of knowing because district officials wouldn’t explain their expenses to us.

Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report

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