RICHMOND, Va. – There’s no doubt that public education professionals must travel from time to time.
But do they really have to spend nearly $500,000 at hotels – including several very expensive resorts – in just one year? And do they really need to pay six figures to a travel agency, presumably to make reservations on their behalf?
There is a strong suspicion that really happened between July 2010 and July 2011 at Richmond Public Schools.
The school district wrote checks for an astonishing $448,997 to hotels around the nation between July 2010 and July 2011, according to an EAGnews investigation of the district’s check registry. It also paid $135,761 to Dalianes World Wide Travel, an agency based in Eureka, California.
The heavy spending didn’t end there. The school district also wrote checks for $92,574 at various restaurants in 2010-11, and had a series of other unusual expenditures, including $29,276 at Sea Clear Aquarium Inc., $53,602 at Joe Ragan’s Coffee LTD, $50,750 at the Richmond Ballet, $5,813 at Busch Gardens in Florida, $1,532 at Gracious Bridal and $4,523 at Spirit Cruises LLC.
We obviously wanted to know the reason for all the heavy spending, but school officials gave us very few straight answers, finally demanding that we submit a second freedom of information request (and pay a second fee) to get the explanations.
After haggling with school officials, we finally decided that the dollar figures speak for themselves. School officials can explain to taxpayers why all of this money was spent on travel and food when the district was battling huge budget deficits ($27 milion at last report) and laying off teachers and cutting student programs.
A Richmond television station, WTVR, received an advance of this story last week and aired a report Friday night. The school district issued the following statement in response:
“The information reported by EAG is not accurate. The organization requested a check registry which lists payments to vendors including pass-thru activities from state operated and other programs … for which we are the fiscal agent, including the Math, Science and Innovation Center. And the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. Therefore, the list does not correlate to the district’s spending activity.”
We looked up the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond. That’s a special public school funded by a number of local school districts, including Richmond. The Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School is also a special public school funded with tax dollars. So Richmond school officials are telling us they’re not the only guilty parties when it comes to excessive spending. They say we should blame at least two other public schools for this ridiculous tab.
Frankly we couldn’t care less if all of this money was wasted by one public school or three dozen public entities. Who in government has a legitimate excuse to blow hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money at pricey hotels and resorts? We look forward to hearing whatever excuses they might offer.
A total of 341 checks were written by school officials for hotel tabs between July 2010 and July 2011. And some of the tabs were uncomfortably large, even at hotels located in Richmond.
For instance, nine checks were written by the district to the Sheraton Park South Hotel in Richmond between Aug. 3, 2010 and June 27, 2011. The total amount of those checks came to a breathtaking $52,504.54. One of the checks was written for $16,407.72 while another was written for $13,170.75.
The Crown Plaza Richmond West also collected its share of school dollars. Just seven checks were written to the hotel, but the total came to $19,963.48. One night at the Marriott Richmond – June 23, 2011 – cost the district $12,355.
Three checks were written to the Hilton Garden Inn in Richmond, totaling $3,423.13. Five checks were written to the Holiday Inn South in Richmond, totaling $10,750.
Similar expenditures were recorded in many out-of-state hotels. Three checks were written to the Hilton Washington totaling $6,025.02. Five checks were written to the Marriott-San Francisco totaling $7086.65. Three checks were written to the Sheraton Boston Hotel totaling $7,791.22. Four checks were written to the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, totaling $3,941.40.
While we’re guessing that most of the travel was labeled as “business,” the money trail suggests that play time was included.
Four school district checks were written to the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia (advertised as a golf, spa and luxury resort) for a shocking total of $32,647.81.
Two checks were written to the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass (advertised as “the premier destination resort in the American southwest”) for a total of $4,184.32. Ten checks were written to the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for a total of $6,711.84.
Four school district checks, totaling $8,420.16, were written to the Gaylord Texan Resort in Dallas.
We have to wonder how many people had great vacation getaways at taxpayer expense.
Somebody sure loves Jason’s Deli
Restaurant food was another big item on the school district’s check registry in 2010-11.
The district spent $92,574 at various eateries in 2010-11, with most of the money going to a handful of establishments.
Seventy-six district checks were written to an establishment called Jason’s Deli in 2010-11. The total tab was $27,607.19, with six checks written for more than $1,000 and most of them written for hundreds of dollars.
Only three checks were written to Little Caesars Pizza, but one of them was for $16,854, bringing the total to $17,312.
Chick-Fil-A got its share of business from the school district, taking in 27 checks worth a total of $9,064.66. The district also wrote 39 checks to a restaurant called Padow’s for a total of $8,199.41.
Getting the runaround from the district
We made a sustained effort to get explanations from the district for at least some of these expenditures. But Richmond school officials were not cooperative.
An EAGnews researcher contacted the district in late September, after we had reviewed the check register. She explained to the district’s finance department that we were looking for verbal explanations for the spending. The finance department referred her to Angela Lewis, the school board clerk.
Lewis initially tried to send our researcher back to the finance department, then said we would have to submit another freedom of information request and pay another fee to get the information. She also indicated that the district might not get the information to us as quickly as usual, because we’re not from Virginia.
A few days later Lewis changed her mind, saying freedom of information requests were for documents. She again referred our researcher to the finance deparment. Wanda Payne, the director of finance, indicated that it would take “a considerable amount of time to gather, research and follow up with the principals at the various locations.”
At that point we sensed that the district felt no urgency to explain its spending habits, so we decided to release the dollar figures to the public and let citizens determine how to deal with the situation.
District officials have known for weeks that we were investigating their check register, and never once did they mention that they act as a fiscal agent for other schools or government entities.
Our guess, based on previous experiences with other districts, is that school officials will eventually say that most of the hotel and restaurant bills were incurred for “professional development” activities. They might also say that much of the money used for hotels and food came from federal or state grants.
To that we say “so what?” Wasted tax money is wasted tax money, regardless of where it came from or who in government spent it. And while professional development is important, we hardly see why school staff couldn’t have stayed at clean but far less expensive hotels.
Super 8 and Red Roof Inn are not expensive. In fact they may be downright perfect for school employees who work for districts that are millions of dollars in debt.
Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report