TRENTON, N.J. – Americans who insist that public education’s woes are caused by a lack of K-12 “investment” from taxpayers should be forced to study the spending practices of New Jersey’s Trenton Public Schools.

spending report graphic nbDespite spending $20,407 per student – well above New Jersey’s $18,000 average – Trenton school officials still cannot lift most of their 13,968 students out of the academic abyss. Nearly two-thirds of Trenton students rate as below proficient in math and reading, according to JerseyCAN.org.

The district also has a worst-in-state graduation rate of 48.4 percent.

The district’s spending clearly isn’t benefitting students, at least not academically.

So who is benefiting?

That’s what EAGnews attempted to find out by conducting a review of the district’s 2011-12 spending practices, as chronicled in its checking and credit card records. While we were at it, EAGnews also inspected Trenton schools’ labor contracts to learn how much various employee benefits cost taxpayers.

What we found was a big-spending district (a $285 million budget in 2011-12) that fritters money away on items and practices that have virtually no connection to student achievement.

The spending examples from checking and credit cards are just a small percentage of the total amount of money spent by the school district. Citizens and reporters are encouraged to dig deeper and hold school leaders more accountable for their spending habits.

School officials won’t explain legal fees

Trenton schools spent $501,972 on legal fees during the 2011-12, making area attorneys some of the biggest benefactors of the school spending. Top among them was the Parker McCay law firm, which collected $289,876 in legal fees from the district – an amount equal to 57 percent of the Trenton district’s total legal expenses for the year.

When Fox 29 reporters asked for an explanation of the district’s large legal bills with Parker McCay, Trenton school officials would only say the expenditures went to a “board appointed attorney” for “professional services related to general legal matters, personnel, labor and grievances (and) special education.”

That bureaucratic jargon can roughly be translated as, “Buzz off.”

Trenton school officials had a similar reply when asked why they spent $159,259 with the Hill Wallack law firm during 2011-12.

As a result of the district’s tight-lipped policy, we can’t report how many taxpayer dollars the district paid to New Jersey lawyers in an effort to fire ineffective or abusive educators.

Taxpayers deserve a better explanation. After all, in terms of a 180-day school year, Trenton school officials dropped $2,788 a day on attorney fees. That’s a lot of money, even compared to the spending practices of many other large districts. Local residents might want to pursue this matter further with Mayor Tony Mack, who oversees the district.

Another questionable expense from the 2011-12 school year was the $47,645 Trenton officials spent with restaurants and caterers. Of that amount, $32,825 was spent at Mastoris Restaurant. On August 31st, 2011, there was a charge of $18,461 at that restaurant. It must have been quite a meal.

The catering expenses largely benefitted workshop participants, volunteers, parents, and students who were being honored by the district for various accomplishments.

When asked for explanations by Fox 29, district officials were eager to point out the restaurant money came from grants, presumably from the federal government or the New Jersey General Assembly. Since government grants are really just tax dollars dressed up as free money, Trenton school officials shouldn’t be too self-satisfied with their stewardship of taxpayer resources.

Cell phone charges were another big item in Trenton’s check register that has a questionable impact on student success. The district spent $54,029 service for 90 cell phones, which are given to principals, administrators and building and grounds staff. That breaks down to $600 per phone – admittedly not a huge expense, but one that schools managed to function without not that long ago.

Teachers’ union contract loaded with goodies

Eight individuals on Trenton’s administrative team earned a six-figure salary during 2011-12. Then-Superintendent Raymond Broach was the district’s top-earner with a base salary of $175,000. That same year, Broach also received 20 vacation days, 15 sick days and four personal days.

Teachers also benefitted from generous school spending policies. A hefty slice of school spending – $2,730,904 – went as payouts to school staff for unused sick days during 2011-12.

Trenton teachers also pocketed $666,828 for “working beyond contracted school hours in 2011-12.”

The district spent $258,491 on tuition reimbursement for teachers who took college classes in pursuit of a higher degree. This is the gift that keeps on giving, considering that once educators get their new degree, they’ll also move higher up the union’s salary schedule. That’s a nice benefit for teachers, though mounting research finds a teacher’s attainment of an advanced degree has little to no impact on student achievement, as the liberal Center for American Progress concluded in a 2012 study.

The local teachers union even got in on the spending fun. In 2011-12, Trenton taxpayers gave a generous gift to the Trenton Education Association in the form of release time for district employees who also serve as union officials.

By allowing TEA officials to step away from their normal school duties in order to conduct union business, the district racked up $187,746 in expenses – presumably both in salaries to those union officials and in pay to educators who were hired to fill in for them.

That’s a nice gift to the Big Labor – one that taxpayers give the union annually.

There are a lot of nice gifts throughout the Trenton school district’s budget. Of course, those goodies come at quite a price. New Jersey’s homeowners are reportedly the most highly taxed in the nation, and too many of the schools they support are among the worst.

Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report

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