Airline tickets, flowers and art: District 189's spending habits under scrutiny

Spent nearly $200,000 on expenses seemingly unrelated to students' learning

News-DemocratMay 2, 2010 

— School District 189 spent nearly $200,000 on airline tickets, hotels and other items seemingly unconnected to learning, including bottled water for offices, flower arrangements and more than $10,000 for original artwork, according to available financial records.

The $197,291 listed as expenditures covered a 12-month period spanning portions of the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 academic years, according to district financial records obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat.

They show that $138,090 was spent to lodge school board members, top administrators, consultants and teachers at Hiltons, Sheratons, a Ritz-Carlton, and other major hotels in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, San Francisco, San Jose, Houston, Reno, Savannah, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Nashville and New Orleans.

Airfare was $39,525, with $23,695 paid during a three-month period from April 23 to Aug. 2 of 2006.

While the records showed that lodging was usually at corporate rates, rooms paid for by taxpayers included stays at vacation hotels, including the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix, which features a lagoon-like swimming pool with waterfalls encircling a tropical island. One school district employee spent six nights at the resort in October 2007 at a cost of $1,204.

The payments were listed under the heading "Necessary Expenditures."

However, top administrators from five other metro-east districts questioned that level of spending for travel and did not consider buying water, flowers or artwork as necessary.

Conference costs for "professional development" most often are paid for by federal money intended for impoverished and special needs children.

District 189 Superintendent Theresa Saunders did not respond to a detailed list of questions faxed to her office concerning district spending and her own spending. Financial records show that Saunders received reimbursement checks totaling more than $35,000 over 11 months during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 academic years.

Two metro-east school superintendents outside District 189 commented that federal guidelines encourage conference attendance, including out-of-state trips, and noted that if all the money isn't spent, the government might reduce the next year's amount.

However, four superintendents and one assistant superintendent contacted for this article said District 189's level of spending for travel and lodging does not occur in their districts.

Because 90 percent of its students come from households listed as below the poverty level, and because only 9 percent of its high school students meet state proficiency standards, District 189 receives more of this type of federal money than any other metro-east distinct.

Ed Hightower, superintendent of Edwardsville School District 7, said his entire $3,000 annual budget for travel for board members and administrators is a fraction of what District 189 budgets.

"We seldom travel to out-of-state conferences. We've cut down on all travel," Hightower said.

In contrast, School District 189 spent $3,000 of federal grant money to send just one person to the four-day American Association of School Librarians conference in October 2007 in Reno, Nev.

When asked if his district spends money on bottled water, flowers for board members to send to ill or deceased employees, or for artwork such as a $4,000 "historical quilt" District 189 bought in 2006, Hightower answered, "Be serious. Of course not."

Two District 189 school board members -- Kinnis Williams and Carl Officer -- said that while they are concerned about excessive spending on travel and lodging, they support conference attendance.

Both men said that monitoring this spending is complicated by a procedure that requires Saunders and another administrator to formulate the budget and send it, first, to the Illinois State Board of Education. The state administers this money, which is called Title 1 grant money, for the federal government.

Williams said that by the time the school board sees the Title 1 budget, it already has received state approval.

"It's hard to scrutinize when it's already been pre-approved," he said.

Another financial aspect that showed up in the District 189 records that other superintendents said does not occur in their districts was Saunders' practice of periodically submitting requests for reimbursement for expenses -- $37,214 in all throughout 11 nonconsecutive months -- November 2005; March, April, May, June, August and September 2006; and April, July, October and November 2007.

The documents showed that reimbursement checks for Saunders were approved for such things as $100 for "change in fare," $64.45 for "flower for conference," $599.22 for "student gifts," $965 for "student supplies," $862.51 for "bikes," and $6.45 "raffle tickets."

She also received a check for $1,512 to cover the cost of a lost lap top computer and case.

But most of Saunders' reimbursement checks were for expenditures labeled simply "misc. expenses" or unspecified "conference expenses."

Under "misc. expenses," Saunders' checks include:

* $1,788 on Oct. 2, 2007.

* $3,777 on Oct. 23, 2007.

* $4,304 on Nov. 16, 2007.

The records showed that two education workshops for 189 administrators took place at local restaurants, where the cost of meals for participants was picked up by taxpayers at a total cost of $1,239 in November 2005 and $1,426 in April 2006.

Saunders led 10 smaller working lunch meetings between January and May of 2006 at the restaurant at National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. In each case, taxpayer money was used to pay the $50 meeting room cost and the lunch tab for Saunders and her guests, which ranged from $77 to $93.

In 2007, District 189 sent 21 people to a state education conference in Chicago at a cost of $13,026 for lodging. It spent another $16,861 for 10 people to stay in hotel rooms in 2006 in the same city. In both cases, district conventioneers stayed at a Sheraton Hotel.

Officer, who is in his first year as a District 189 board member, said attendance at state conventions is important.

"You're going to learn things you may not be able to learn any other way," he said, "I've been to some myself. ... I've learned a lot."

Granite City School District 9 Superintendent Harry Briggs said that a lot of federal grant money has to be spent on certain areas.

"Professional development might involve attending conferences," he said.

"They can't spend it any other way," Briggs said, mentioning that other metro-east districts don't qualify for as many federally funded grants as the East St. Louis district.

"You shouldn't be spending $10,000 on art," he said, but added, "I guess it would also depend on the circumstances."

In total, District 189 spent $11,100 for artwork during the two-year time period. That includes a $2,800 rendering of jazz legend Miles Davis, a graduate of Lincoln High School in East St. Louis.

It also included $700 for an oil portrait of former district administrator Katie Harper Wright, who was honored by having an elementary school named after her.

Wright said she thought a photograph she supplied the district was going to be enlarged at minimal cost and framed to be hung at the school. She said she didn't know they would hire someone to paint a portrait.

"It's ugly. It doesn't look like me," she said. "I didn't have anything to do with it."

While Briggs criticized other District 189 spending, including $925 spent for flowers ("It sounds like they need to look at their budget") and $7,600 spent on bottled water ("No. Drink out of the tap"), Briggs defended attending conferences.

He said that his own district sent 40 employees to a January teachers' conference in Chicago.

However, due to difficult financial times, the district will not be paying for any employees to attend the state conference this year, he said.

"We decided at the last board meeting, if you want to go, you have to go on your own."

But when asked about personal reimbursements, Briggs said, "I have an expense account tied to mileage. I don't get anything else. That's all I've ever asked for."

Collinsville Community Unit School District 10 Superintendent Dennis Craft echoed Briggs sentiments. "I get a monthly mileage allotment, and that's it," he said. "I think it's like $125. I think that's it."

Craft said his district spends no money on bottled water or art.

"We're artsy, but we don't buy art," he said.

And Ryan Boike, assistant superintendent for Belleville Public School District 118, said, "We don't spend anywhere near $138,090 for travel."

That district spends no money on flowers and uses student art for decoration. He said the district does $13 a month on bottled water.

O'Fallon High School District 203 Superintendent Darcy Benway also said that certain federal and state grants must be spent on specific items, such as professional development. "If I don't spend it I'll lose it," she said, and mentioned that options for paying for professional development include bringing in a speaker or sending staff to conferences.

"But very rarely do our teachers travel via airlines," she said. "Most of our teachers can find conferences in the state in Springfield or Chicago to attend."

Also, she said, her district buys some bottled water for meetings and entertainment. And they budget an amount for flowers to send to employees who experience a death in their immediate families. "I think that's the right thing to do."

She said her district does not purchase professional artwork but displays students' art, instead.

Benway also said that she receives no reimbursements from the district, except for her cell phone.

"My contract states that I get mileage reimbursement," she explained. "Since I've been here, I've never turned that in ... I know the district has been in financial trouble, and I have not turned in anything for reimbursement."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com and 239-2625. Contact reporter Maria Baran at mbaran@bnd.com and 239-2460.

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