In a time of tight budgets, teacher layoffs and increased fees, school districts are still spending money on expensive meals, teacher parties and even gift cards, a CALL7 You Paid For It investigation found.
CALL7 Investigators reviewed check registers and credit card databases for the major metro school districts and found thousands of dollars spent on a public relations consultant, gift cards, staff parties and meals at top restaurants. While the totals would never fix the districts' budget deficits, the spending shows that administrators are not cutting potentially wasteful at the time many schools are cutting education resources.
There are just, definitely, abuses, said state Rep. Tom Massey, a Poncha Springs Republican who chairs the House education committee. What I would hope comes from this is districts realize that people are watching. The message is, we need to be more accountable with what we do at the district level, particularly in an era in declining finances.
School districts conceded that some of the spending uncovered by CALL7 Investigators should not have happened.
At Denver Public Schools, the 7News analysis found the district spent about $200,000 on restaurants and fast food last year. DPS spokesman Michael Vaughn said not all of that came from tax money and some would have been paid for with student activity fees or collections from staff. The district has also not cut teachers.
Some of that money is not general fund money, he said. Some of that money is private money that's not taxpayer dollars.
The bottom line question: Is $200,000 for fast food and restaurants justified? CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia asked.
It's a small fraction of the overall operating budget, Vaughn said.
That's not the question -- you've already told me that it is. I asked a simple question: Is it justified? Ferrugia asked.
I think that's a fair question to ask. I don't have a simple straight answer for you, Vaughn said.
For example, DPS spent about $4,000 on food and gift cards for training for secretaries. The money came from taxpayer funds.
Well, the gift cards are an improper expense. It should not have happened, Vaughn said. And as for the money that was spent on food for the secretaries institute, that was an improper expense as well.
We appreciate this being brought to our attention, Vaughn said, adding the gift cards were caught by accounting but the food expenditure was not until CALL7 Investigators asked about the expense.
And there was about $700 for food for a networking session for schools at a sports bar. No liquor was on receipts reimbursed by taxpayers.
I think it's a legitimate question to be raised: Could this meeting have been held at the school? he said. I think that's a fair question.
At Aurora Public Schools, CALL7 Investigators found repeated meals of several hundred dollars each at Ruth's Chris Steak House by employees attending a conference in Washington, D.C. Ironically, the money was out of Title One funds designed to help poor children.
They were trying to get back to their meeting as quick as they possibly could., said Superintendent John Barry. It was a convenient stop. They didn't speck out the expense account on what restaurant was cheaper than others. They just went to get something to eat.
But in an area of Washington full of less expensive restaurants, receipts show that several of the meals ended late at night and were more than an hour long so the quick meal explanation doesnt appear accurate.
For example, one $310 meal for four people was ordered at 9:32 p.m. and the bill was paid at 11:09 p.m.
Im asking you, it is justified? Ferrugia asked.
We always trust our people to do the right thing, Barry said.
We also found a $2,600 staff party at Dave and Busters paid with tax funds.
That was not done well, Barry said. So what we do is when we find something wrong, we fix it and we try to make sure it never happens again. We always want to be prudent about how we spend taxpayers' money. So the helpful thing about this, this dialog we are having right here right now (is it) enhances our ability to be more efficient and more effective.
In Jefferson County, CALL7 Investigators questioned nearly $170,000 in contracts with a public relations firm. The firm is owned by Marilyn Saltzman, who use to be the districts spokeswoman and also is a project manager at a public relations company owned by the school board president Lesley Dahlkemper.
Both Saltzman and Dahlkemper say their work relationship and Saltzmans previous work with the district had nothing to do with her getting the contracts. There was an RFP for the contracts and Saltzman was a low bidder on one but not the other.
So you dont see this as a cozy relationship between Marilyn Saltzman, the school district (where) she worked for years and the current board president? Ferrugia asked.
You know, I dont, said Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.
Dalkemper also notes her firm has done no work for the JeffCo Schools since 2006, long before she was elected to the school board.
Saltzman also said she pays contractors out of the money she receives under the contract with the district so it is not all for her.
But after we asked questions, the district and Saltzman agreed to cancel about $3,500 of the contract to do public relations for the diversity department.
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