MADISON, Wis. – It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the Madison school district, at least when it comes to everyday spending and financial oversight.

spending report graphic nbLast year we published a story about the district’s credit card and check expenses for 2011, as well as its questionable credit card policy which seemed to lack accountability.

A district official told us that multiple credit cards were issued to employees in various departments in each of the district’s 55 schools and other buildings. While each building has a site manager who is supposed to keep track of all purchases and receipts, no credit card records were forwarded to any central office in the district.

In short, there was very little effort to track who purchased what with district credit cards.

We recently asked district officials if anything had changed in their credit card policy, but received no response.

We posed the same question to former school board President James Howard, who was quoted last year as saying he planned to look into the credit card policy. We received no response from Howard, either.

But their responses may not be necessary. Judging from our recent inspection of the district’s credit card and check expenses for 2012, it appears that spending continued at a healthy pace. Whether all of the listed expenses were justifiable or not, they add up to a great deal of money.

The district’s hotel tab came to $232,693, which included 67 charges at the 5-star JW Marriott in Indianapolis on a single day for a total of $35,981.

The district’s restaurant bill came to $243,049, of which $152,687 was spent on pizza from various vendors, $12,962 went to Panera Bread and more than $10,000 went to various catering services.

Transportation costs were also eye-catching, with $277,395 spent at Madison Taxi, $50,800 at Green Cab of Madison, $9,446 at Badger Cab and $9,084 at Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

More than a week ago we asked the district to work with us and provide explanations for the various expenses, so we could explain them better to readers. They agreed to do so, but failed to follow up.

A few days ago we emailed a reminder and received a response that the district would “provide a brief response by the timeline you originally provided.”

But that was the last we heard from Madison school officials. So the best we can do is present the raw dollar figures we found and try our best to put them into perspective.

Cushy hotels

Travel is a major expense for most public school districts. School officials from other districts tell us that most of the travel is related to professional development – mostly conferences and workshops – for staff.

Officials also tell us that a lot of the travel money comes from state and federal grants. We don’t particularly care. It’s still tax money being spent.

Employees often stay at expensive hotels because that’s where the conferences and workshops take place. Again, we don’t buy that excuse. One can attend a conference at the Hilton and still get a comfortable room for a lot less down the road.

Madison school employees did their share of traveling in 2012. There were a total of 566 hotel transactions totaling $232,693.

By far the most expensive trip was on July 21, when 67 credit card transactions were made at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis. This was surely a luxurious stay for school staff. Check out the following description of the hotel:

“Boasting 1,005 guest rooms and over 103,000 square feet of event and meeting space with 33 expansive floors, this modern oasis is the largest JW Marriott in the world and the tallest hotel in the state. Distinguished travelers flock to our downtown Indianapolis hotel to experience world-class amenities, a convenient location and exceptional comforts.”

There were many other smaller hotel tabs that added up to a lot of money.

There were 17 charges at the Marriott in Chicago on Jan 20-21 for a total of $3,242. There were seven charges at the St. Francis Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Nov. 9-12 for $3,084 and 10 charges at Towns & Country Lodging in San Diego on Aug. 9 for $6,620.

There were four charges at the Hilton Hotel in San Diego on Nov. 6 for $6,285. There were five charges at the same hotel in San Diego on Dec. 10 totaling $5,007. There were seven charges at the Hilton Hotel Tapatio in Phoenix on Sept. 29 for $3,306. There were seven charges at the Holiday Inn Downtown in Huntsville, Alabama on April 23 totaling $3,445. There were six charges at the Homewood Suites in Seattle on March 8 for $3,637.

Lodging within Wisconsin also proved to be expensive. There were five charges totaling  $5,525 at the Devils Head Resort in Merrimac on Jan. 27. There were two charges totaling $6,427 at Four Seasons Island in Pembine on Aug. 8.

There were also 30 charges scattered throughout the year at the hometown Sheraton Madison Hotel, for a total cost of $16,833.

Transportation costs

Madison Spending at a GlanceOf course all of the out-of-town travel required a lot of flying. The district had 218 transactions with various airlines for a total of $68,554.

Local travel also proved quite expensive for taxpayers.

The district dropped a cool $4.8 million on Badger Bus Lines, $3.2 million on Kobussen Buses and $99,422 on Lazers Bus Service. Those dollar figures lead us to guess that the three bus companies are probably under contract with the district to provide the bulk of student transportation.

We have no guesses about other transportation expenses, like $2.6 million for the Madison Metro Transit System, $277,395 for Madison Taxi, $50,800 for Green Cab, $9,446 for Badger Cab and $9,084 for Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

We also have no idea why the district paid $8,627 on April 27 for the services of the Burkhalter Travel Agency.

Gigantic food tab

We’ve discovered that large amounts of money are spent on pizza in public school districts throughout the nation, but the Madison district may win the grand prize.

The district dropped $152,687 in 566 different charges at 25 pizza vendors over the course of the year. The largest amount of money ($49,282) was spent at Dominos, followed by $37,833 at Rocky Rococo, $19,085 at Pizza Hut, $12,231 at Pizza Extreme, $7,672 at Little Ceasars, $5,246 at the Glass Nickel, $5,159 at Brew City, $2,454 at the Pizza Pit and $2,912 at Dahmen’s.

Based on information gathered in other districts, it may be safe to assume that the pizza was purchased as part of the food service program and resold to students and staff.

But even if that’s the case, we would like to see a breakdown of the number of pizza transactions within the school district and the amount of revenue collected from the sales. With more than $150,000 spent at various pizza shops, taxpayers have a right to know if they are making money, breaking even or losing money in these transactions.

The restaurant bill included a lot more than pizza.

There were 118 transactions at Panera Bread for a total of $12,962. There were 45 transactions at Milio’s Sandwiches for a total of $4,771. There were 48 transactions at Subway for a total of $2,485. There were 41 transactions at Einstein’s Bagels for a total of $2,308.

The district also spent $4,189 at Blue Plate Catering and $6,555 at Cranberry Creek Café and Catering.

Large miscellaneous expenses

School records indicate a lot of different miscellaneous expenses that deserve some sort of explanation.

They include $455,568 to the Urban League of Greater Madison, $28,765 to the Lussier Family Heritage Conference Center, $24,035 to the Madison Ice Arena, $22,746 to an organization called 100 Black Men of Madison, $13,053 to Tyrol Basin Ski Snowboard, $11,949 to a left wing magazine called UMOJA, and $10,000 to the Holistic Life Foundation.

Another $9,699 went to Hy Vee grocery stores, $9,761 to Cascade Mountain in Portage, $8,277 to various movie theaters, $7,392 to the Fast Forward Skate Center, $4,104 to the Madison Jewish Community, $4,138 to EZ Movers Inc., $3,914 to the Milwaukee Brewers major league baseball club, $3,116 to various convenient stores, $2,954 to various pet supply stores, $2,940 to a stained glass store called The Vinery, $1,285 to the Holy Wisdom Monastery, $1,260 to the Madison Ballet, and $1,199 to Bed, Bath and Beyond.

They also spent money at popular clothing stores such as H&M ($211), Hollister ($160), Hot Topic ($80) and Wet Seal ($60). They also spent $51 at BeWild.com, an online store for rave apparel, $73 at the World of Leggings, and $465 at Weggy Winery. They apparently also bought a subscription at Juxtapoz.com, a seemingly erotic publication, for $34.99.

Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report

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