AKRON, Ohio – The people who decide how school districts spend their money don’t seem to approach things very logically.

spending report graphic nbOn the surface, it should be simple enough. You make sure there is enough money to hire quality teachers and administrators, purchase adequate supplies for students, and provide decent buildings for them to learn in.

Everything else should be secondary.

But simple logic obviously has nothing to do with school spending. A quick look at the spending records in the Akron school district in 2012-13 makes that perfectly clear.

This is a district operating with a $16 million budget deficit. Within the last few years it has cut 84 teaching jobs, the middle school sports program, language and music classes, and even a unique anti-bullying program.

Oh well, you might say. At least the school is doing something to address its money problems.

But is it doing enough? And are outside forces, like the state and federal governments, making their best effort to help the district, and others like it, put every available penny to the best possible use?

In 2012-13, the district spent $110,847 on upscale hotels around the nation for various professional conferences, $540,807 on legal fees, $138,368 on various forms of student entertainment, $44,327 on restaurants and catering, $31,066 on a program for adolescent boys based on African drum beats, and $25,445 to rent space at various convention centers and country clubs.

Then there’s the $1.6 million in salary paid to the 14 highest compensated employees in the district. That’s a full 10 percent of the entire budget deficit.

EAGnews spent several weeks inspecting spending records from the Akron district as part of our ongoing “Where Your School Dollars Go” series. Akron district officials were extremely courteous and helpful during this process.

Our goal is to inspire local taxpayers and journalists to dig a little deeper and hold their local school board officials responsible for spending decisions and waste.

Our efforts only uncovered a small portion of Akron school spending for 2012-13. There’s a lot we didn’t find, including a lot of labor-related spending. We requested the cost tied to various provisions in the teachers union collective bargaining contract, but the district could not provide them. Those numbers are frequently through the roof in many districts – six or seven figures for things like automatic annual raises for all teachers (regardless of their effectiveness), free or low cost health insurance and pensions, seniority bonuses, reimbursement for unused sick days, and other items that contribute nothing to student learning.

For anyone who wants to do some digging, there are a lot of expenditures – probably some quite disturbing – yet to be uncovered.

Pricey lawyers and hotels

What in the world is the school district doing spending $540,000 a year on lawyers when middle school students had to go without sports teams?

A big part of the blame for that goes to federal and state laws that allow teachers unions and other employee unions to force the district into teeth-grinding contract negotiations every couple of years.

The district reported that $81,758 of its legal tab in 2012-13 went for nothing but labor negotiation costs. A school district has to spend that much money to pay lawyers to keep the unions from bleeding the district dry. What kind of sense does that make?

Other common legal costs are payments for court reporters, worker compensation services, tax complaint services, payment for stenographers, special education services, legal research services, legal reference materials, court costs, hearing officer fees, binding arbitration services, services to update school board policies, general litigation services, settlements and human resource services.

Good grief. Public schools were established to educate kids. How did they ever get saddled with so many expensive responsibilities that have little or nothing to do with that mission?

Then there’s the travel costs. How in the world could the district cut 202 employees, including 139 teachers, in 2012 when other school employees were flying around the nation staying at pricey hotels?

The district had 101 charges at 56 different hotels in 2012-13 for a total of $110,847. And they weren’t just any hotels.

They spent $16,720 in a single charge to the Portland Marriott Downtown in Portland, Oregon. There were six charges totaling $10,345 at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, Ohio. There was a single charge of $7,808 at the Hilton Palacio Del Rio in San Antonio, Texas, and a single charge of $7,540 at the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Again we can blame the state and federal governments, who sponsor these professional development trips and pressure schools to send their personnel. No trips equal no money, so the schools might as well go for it.

What a short-sighted, ignorant way to waste tax dollars. Is it necessary for teachers and other employees to attend these conferences every year? Or are there some years when local school districts could use the same amount of grant money for more practical needs, like reinstating foreign language and music programs?

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the bureaucrats to allow districts to spend this money in the best interest of students at the moment, instead of dictating that they use it for travel and stays at high priced hotels?

If annual professional development is that important for teachers, can’t much of it be done through online video conferencing? Why can’t one staff member go on the trip and bring back the information to share with the others? And why do they have to stay in such high-brow places? Couldn’t staff members stay someplace less expensive near the convention hotels?

They may be spending federal dollars, but it’s still tax money and should be spent as sparingly as possible.

 High priced officials, restaurants and recreation                                                                                                      

The Akron school board and administrators deserve part of the blame for the excessive spending we found.

Nobody from Columbus or Washington D.C. forced the district to spend a full $1.6 million on the salaries (not counting benefits) of the 14 highest paid employees in 2012-13.

They are, for the record, Superintendent David James ($175,000), Treasurer John Pierson ($131,021), Assistant Superintendent Ellen McWilliams ($122,241), Director Rhonda Porter ($122,241), Director Mary Outley-Kelly ($120,526), Director Kathleen McVey ($116,555), Director Debra Foulk ($110,619), Director Karen Gegick ($110,619), Director Mark Black ($105,848), Supervisor/Manager Howard Lawson ($105,636), Principal Felisha Gould ($105,168), Principal Addie Veasley ($105,168), Principal Michelle Marquess-Kearns ($103,107), and Supervisor/Manager Karen Liddell-Anderson ($100,879).

In school circles they say you need to pay big bucks for top administrators who get top results. But in its 2012-13 report card from the Ohio Department of Education, the Akron district received a C grade for performance, D for overall progress, a failing grade for closing the achievement gap between white and minority students and a failing grade for graduation rate.

Have all those folks really earned all that money? In the private sector they would probably be fired.

The district’s restaurant and catering tab – 143 charges totaling $44,327 – is also difficult to understand.

There were 31 charges for $10,518 at Emidio & Sons Pizza, seven charges as Emidio & Sons Banquet Center for $4,017, five charges for $1,685 at Fiesta Pizza, one charge for $2,139 at Hartville Kitchen Restaurant, six charges for $2,452 at Lembos Italian Restaurant, 14 charges for $1,457 at Mama Rosas Pizza and Sub, two charges for $1,057 at Phillips Flagship, four charges for $5,071 at Todaros Party Center, 11 charges for $2,974 at Waterloo Restaurant and two charges for $1,522 at Team Pizza.

The district offered honest explanations for a lot of the food expenditures.

The Emidio & Sons tab, for instance, included $5,679 for “parent programs,” $649 for a “catered staff meeting on waiver day” and $1,607 for “food items ordered as needed for workshop/meetings for the Office of Teaching and Learning.”

The Lembo’s tab included $2,236 for “parent program(s)” and $216 for “catered staff meeting on waiver day.”

The Waterloo Restaurant tab included $2,446 for “catered staff meeting on waiver day.”

This sounds like a lot of expensive food for schools staff members and teachers. Was it all really necessary – particularly the catered staff meetings?

The district also spent $138,368 on various forms of student entertainment.

The theater bill came to $51,314. A big chunk of that – $25,882 – went for a student after school enrichment program, but $3,448 was spent on “concert tickets – field trip” and $3,347 went for “resident productions, touring productions and workshops for Project Rise program.”

The district spent $38,025 on event rentals and party supplies, $13,971 on field trips to Cedar Point, $3,620 for field trips to Akron Aeros professional baseball games, $17,646 for bowling and supplies and field trip transportation.

There was also $19,449 spent to rent space for four high school proms and a senior graduation dinner. Those are certainly nice and worthwhile events, but doesn’t a district the size of Akron have enough space in its buildings, like gymnasiums or cafeterias, that can be used for such events, free of rent?

Finally, there was the $31,066 spent on services from Alchemy Inc., a company that works to help urban adolescent males through mentoring “and the telling, discussion and analysis of mythological stories and fairy tales, told to the beat of the African drum.”

So school sports and language classes can be cut, but there’s room in the budget for this?

Once again, we fail to see the logic in public school spending.

 Alissa Mack contributed to this report

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