MADISON, Wis. – Property owners in the Madison school district have a right to be angry.
For two straight years the Madison school board has voted to increase their property taxes. For an average home, taxes have increased about $200 per year, according to media reports.
That’s a significant amount of money for average families with tight budgets and lots of expenses. And the tax hike seems almost criminal, considering how some of those dollars have been spent.
In the 2014-15 school year, the Madison school district spent a whopping $228,143 at hotels around the nation, according to information secured from the district through a public information request. It also dropped a cool $198,610 on restaurants and $118,464 on airline fares and related costs.
That equals more than half a million dollars spent in one year on travel and food.
That spending occurred in the same school district that recently cut a projected a $14.8 million budget deficit by “capping health insurance costs, cutting 110 positions and increasing property taxes by 4.9 percent — the maximum allowed under state law,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
We have to wonder if district administrators have continued to let employees use district credit cards with very limited oversight, a situation they acknowledged back in 2011.
In any case, the spending has not slowed down very much at all since then.
In 2014-15, district employees, students or people representing them made 502 transactions at 171 hotels for a total of $228,143.
The Madison district spent more than $10,000 at three of those hotels and more than $1,000 at 45 hotels.
The 10 hotels that made the most money from the district were the Indianapolis JW Marriott ($41,119), the Devil’s Head Resort and Conference Center in Merrimac, Wisconsin ($24,553), The Commons Hotel in Minneapolis ($11,113), the Embassy Suites in Hunt Valley, Maryland ($9,507), the Marriott in Chicago ($7,517), the Hilton-Grand Inn in Houston ($7,429), Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin Dells ($5,952), the Clarion Suites in Madison ($5,219), the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Jackson, Missouri ($4,937) and the Hyatt Hotel in Savannah, Georgia ($3,568).
To get to those distant hotels, the Madison district had 372 transactions with nine different airlines and booking agencies, costing a total of $118,464. Four of those airlines made at least five figures of taxpayer money – Southwest ($34,222), Delta Air ($31,931), United ($28,842) and American ($18,691).
Some folks in Madison schools also had big appetites in 2014-15. The district had an amazing 2,107 transactions at 375 different restaurants, for a total cost of $198,610. We assume that amount included tips.
The total tab at three of those restaurants topped $10,000 while the tab at 38 others topped $1,000.
The 10 most popular eateries on the Madison school tab were Pizza Hut ($18,448), Little Caesars ($13,169), Glass Nickel Pizza ($11,655), Panera Bread ($9,779), Subway ($9,741), Milios Sandwiches ($7,599), Rocky Rococo Pizza ($6,969), Roman Candle ($5,989), Pizza Pit ($5,780) and Habaneros Mexican Grill ($5,040).
Is anybody in the school district’s central office keeping an eye on all of this spending?
As reported by EAGnews in 2011, “The district issues multiple credit cards for various departments in each of its 55 schools and other buildings, according to Candie Steffen, manager of the district’s accounting office. Each building has a site manager who is supposed to keep track of all purchases and receipts for seven years.
“But no records are forwarded to any central office in the district. Some purchases may be inspected periodically by auditors, but there is very little oversight regarding who uses credit cards to pay for what.”
In 2012 that lack of accountability resulted in $292,693 in hotel spending, $243,049 on restaurants and $68,554 on airline fares. Those numbers, of course, are very similar to 2014-15.
Perhaps nothing will change until the people of Madison rise up and demand it.