New York City education officials are traveling to conferences at private estates when perfectly suitable local venues are available for free.
They’re splurging on out-of-town lodging and meals beyond set limits, wasting tax dollars on no-bid contracts, and, more often than not, they’re skirting rules designed to protect taxpayers.
New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer came to those conclusions after his office examined just a sliver – $1 million – of the city education department’s massive $20 million travel budget, which he detailed in an audit report published in November.
“Of the 136 sampled payments, 104 totaling $986,598 (93 percent of the $1,060,056 sampled amount), were not fully compliant with DOE’s (standard operating procedures) SOPs and/or the applicable Comptroller’s Directives,” according to the report.
The dysfunction cost taxpayers a lot of money, for a variety of bad spending decisions.
The audit shows the DOE spent $14,023 more than allowed to rent conference space at a Brooklyn hotel and an out-of-state location, paid out $233,167 to private venues to hold meetings without considering free options in the district, and issued payments of more than $40,000 for employees to attend a conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education without required written justification.
The locations listed for the trips and events included places like The New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, Tarrytown House Estate on the Hudson, Vila Roma, the Hotel-Embassy Suites of Buffalo New York, the Hotel-Crowne Plaza in Washington, D.C., the Holiday Inn in Waltham, Massachusetts, and the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tennessee, among others.
A DOE payment of $12,245 for lodging and meals on one of the many out-of-town trips exceeded spending limits by nearly $3,000 without any justification for the 31 percent increase.
DOE officials also neglected to solicit bids as required for 11 of the sampled payments, worth $269,684, for expenses related to the frequent conferences and retreats, according to the report.
The comptroller identified 14 payments worth $221,638 that were issued without the required approval of DOE officials, and 43 travel expenses worth $246,799 spent on things that required supporting documentation the DOE couldn’t provide.
There were international trips, as well. The DOE apparently exploited loopholes in spending rules to avoid approvals for one trip to Cuba that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $60,000 for services that were never used.
“We identified over $60,000 in waste that resulted from an inconsistency between DOE policies governing international travel for, respectively, staff and students. Specifically, while a third level of approval – by the Chancellor or the Chief Operating Officer or designee – is required for staff to travel internationally at the DOE’s expense, such approval is not required for DOE-paid international travel by students, or seemingly for the DOE staff members who accompany them,” according to the audit report.
“When the Chancellor’s office canceled one such trip based on security concerns, DOE lost $60,422 that it had paid out for services that were never used, and paid an additional $97,000 for a replacement trip for most of the same students and staff members.”
The Cuba trip was canceled due to “political turmoil.”
The DOE accepted and responded to the vast majority of the report’s findings and recommendations, and a spokeswoman told the New York Patch officials will hold training sessions to see that folks are following the rules.
“We are also assessing the need for further changes and will continue to explore ways to improve our practices and procedures,” Lauren Siciliano, the department’s deputy chief operating officer, wrote in a prepared statement.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also alleged DOE employees would be held accountable if they gamed the system.
“I want to see a full accounting. I want to make sure money is used right,” de Blasio said at a news conference. “If anyone didn’t use their money right, there need to be consequences.”
That’s what they always say, but the money issues are nothing new.
The problems plaguing the DOE’s travel budget are only the latest examples of waste within 1/20 of one relatively small facet of the city’s gargantuan $24 billion education budget.
EAGnews documents similar issues of systemic waste, corruption, and abuse in public schools across the country every day.
School officials in many districts routinely travel at the public’s expense for questionable “educational” conferences at plush resorts, high-dollar hotels, and warm-weather locales, while simultaneously imploring taxpayers to “invest” more in education.
EAGnews’ spending series exposes the impact the duplicity has on both taxpayers and the students who get short-changed by the system.