FLINT, Mich. – News reports tell us that the Flint school district is hurting for money.
But you would never guess that by looking at the district’s pizza and travel tab.
School officials spent an astonishing $195,083 at a handful of restaurants, including nearly $150,000 at Little Caesars Pizza, during the 2010-11 school year. They also spent $47,421 at a number of very nice hotels around the state and nation, including more than $16,000 at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
We found at least $271,992 worth of questionable expenses that a district official had trouble explaining over the telephone. We attempted to secure purchase orders for the questionable expenses, or at least verbal explanations, but received little cooperation.
But the money trail is enough to make us question the spending priorities of district officials.
We’re not suggesting anyone broke any laws with these expenditures, or even violated district policies. But we have to question the need to spend so much tax money at restaurants and pricey hotels when the district was facing a $3.7 million budget deficit in 2010-11.
We also have to wonder if the district is continuing to spend money in this manner.
Perhaps none of this should be surprising. The district received less than satisfactory reviews on last year’s audit, which examined school finances for fiscal 2010-11. The Flint auditing firm Yeo & Yeo cited eight cases of material weakness, an accounting term signifying a lack in internal controls over financial reporting, according to a report from mlive.com.
Lots of pizza and high class hotels
Flint school officials ran up their huge food bill at a small number of restaurants. Top on the list was Little Caesars, where the district ran up an incredible tab of $143,167.77 in one school year, with only 12 separate purchases.
The most expensive order came on Oct. 12, 2010, when the district ran up a bill for $45,900. There were also separate expenditures, almost on all on different days, for $21,262.47, $20,002.24, $18,238.68, $14,891.62 and $14,862.80.
That’s a heck of a lot of pizza.
The district also ran up a considerable tab at Captain Coty’s Family Restaurant, writing checks for a total of $29,616.33 in 26 separate transactions. The largest single tab – $10,855,15 – came on Oct. 15, 2010.
The district also spent $2,928.87 at Captain Coty’s in three separate purchases on Nov. 12, 2010, and $2,440.86 in a single purchase on Sept. 17, 2010.
The Roma Pizzeria made out almost as well on taxpayer dollars, with 32 separate purchases totaling $13,308.25. Most of the purchases were in the hundreds of dollars, but one, on Sept. 17, 2010, came to $2,329.50.
Someone – we’re assuming school officials - traveled very comfortably in 2010-11, with stays at a number of very expensive hotels around the nation.
There were a total of 35 transactions at the Amway Grand Plaza for a total of $16,170.04.
The most expensive night at the hotel was Feb. 4, 2011, when five school district transactions totaled $3,944.88. That same night the district spent $1,656.80 at the Doubletree Hotel in Chicago.
Another pricey night at the Amway Grand came on Oct. 22, 2010, when the district spent $1,961.28. That same night the district spent $1,603.60 at the plush Loews Philadelphia Hotel, where the cheapest room goes for $239 per night.
We’re sure a good time was had by all on April 1, 2011, when the district dropped $5,088.63 at the JW Marriott Hotel in Grand Rapids. That same night another $856.44 was spent at the Indianapolis Marriott.
For that kind of money, we certainly hope the travelers received free continental breakfasts.
There were also a few questionable charges at hotels within easy driving distance of Flint, including the Lexington Lansing Hotel (six different visits totaling $2,901.22) and the Radisson Hotel Lansing on Oct. 1 and Nov. 19, 2010 ($433.35). Perhaps school officials were just too tired to make the short drive home.
Other expenditures we found odd included $4,660 at a place called the Afojabe Afrikan Village and $590.06 at Sally Beauty Supply.
Few answers from the district
We wish we could explain all of these expenditures, but the district responded to our FOIA request for purchase orders by writing that “only a portion of the check registry items requested have purchase orders.”
The letter went on to say that “a purchase order is not required of all checks issued by the district. In such instances, an invoice of the service or products provided is required … Credit card purchases also do not require purchase orders, but a receipt of the services or products purchased must be maintained for documentation purposes.”
The district did not offer to forward the invoices or receipts that were required for various transactions. Last week, due to deadline considerations, we asked for quick delivery of any purchase orders that were available, in exchange for a quick payment of the processing fee, but our request was ignored.
The official we dealt with did not seem interested in helping us track these costs until yesterday, when he discovered the information would be made public.
Robert Campbell, communications manager for the district, was recently asked by telephone to explain some of the major expenses, but he said he could not.
This morning, in a final effort at due diligence, we forwarded a list of the major expenditures we found to Campbell, and he indicated by email that he would respond “shortly.” More than an hour passed without a response. We sent another email giving notice that would publish in 45 minutes unless we were offered a compelling reason to wait, and still received no response.
We called Campbell one more time and he indicated he would be emailing a statement in “five minutes.” An hour passed and no statement was received.
Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report