School district spent big money on travel, restaurants, catering and other non-essentials in 2012-13

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OAKLAND, Calif. – In 2012, California Democrats, union members and other assorted “progressives” campaigned for the passage of Proposition 30, which raised money for public schools by increasing income taxes on the wealthy and sales taxes on everyone.

spending-report-graphic-nbThey told the public that the state’s schools were in dire financial straits and desperately needed a financial bailout to remain functional.

Voters bought the argument and passed Prop. 30, raising billions of dollars of new revenue for schools. But did the schools really need more money, or just better management of the money they already had?

After reviewing a year’s worth of spending documents from the Oakland Unified School District, we’re convinced it was a case of the latter.

In fiscal 2012-13, school district personnel spent $122,079 on hotel stays, $407,503 on travel agencies, $879,052 on restaurants and catering services, $2.4 million for legal services, $113,955 for conference and retreat centers, $2.6 million for social and ethnic organizations, and $734,436 for the services of an entity called Urban Strategies Council.

Perhaps California voters should have reviewed such expenditures (and comparable spending patterns in other state school districts) before voting on the massive tax increase. They might have told Gov. Jerry Brown and the schools to forget their tax proposal and start using the resources they have in a more logical, productive manner.

EAGnews inspected various spending records from the Oakland school district as part of our continuing series “Where Your School Dollars Go.” Our purpose is to increase transparency in public schools and inspire local reporters and citizens to hold school officials accountable for their spending decisions.

Note that the documents we reviewed only covered a percentage of school district spending in 2012-13. For instance, they did not address administrative salaries or union labor costs, which typically swallow huge chunks of public school budgets.

Oakland school officials were cooperative in providing the records we requested, but said they lacked the time to investigate and explain all of the expenditures we inquired about. So except for a few items, we can only speculate about why the money was spent.

Travel, restaurants and caterers

The Oakland school district’s travel budget for 2012-13 is somewhat deceiving. Records show that district employees only made 39 transactions at hotels around the nation for a total of $122,079. Believe it or not, that’s a fairly modest amount for a large metropolitan school district.

lodge-at-tiburon-300x200Not that school personnel didn’t do their fair share of lodging at ritzy hotels. Records show one charge at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California for $13,922; five charges at the Hilton Garden Inn Bay Bridge for $51,300; two charges at the Lodge at Tiburon for $10,458; one charge at Dolce Hayes Mansion for $10,758.

But district personnel also made liberal use of travel agencies – 69 charges for a total of $407,503 – which probably included a lot of hotel stays. The tab included 41 charges with Galaxy Travel ($264,725) and 26 charges with Linden Travel Agents ($134,859).

The district also ran up a $72,405 bill for various forms of transportation, like taxi cabs, limousines and car rentals. Another $151,416 was spent on charter bus transportation, $3.3 million on public transportation (including $3.2 million to the Alameda County Transit District), and $49,496 for parking.

Another $290,093 went to a company called Walker’s Charter, which we suspect may be a contractor for student transportation.

The school district also spent a huge amount of tax money – $569,714 – on restaurants and caterers. They also spent another $309,338 at Big Apple Cafe,  but suspect that was money for student meals.

Some of the bigger food tabs were $112,659 at Espresso Gourmet Café, $61,365 at La Cucina Italiana, $57,001 at Hong’s Café, $49,011 at Y.J. Pizza, $42,681 at Belle’s Catering, $26,831 at El Chilar Restaurant, $16,976 at Ann’s Catering, $15,222 at Jordon’s Culinary Creations, $14,401 at Scott’s Seafood, $12,597 at Palate Pleasures, $11,811 at Chef Moe’s Bon Appetit Catering, $11,784 at Bon Appetit, $10,843 at Fountain Café and $10,597 at Company Catering.

One district official offered an explanation for the catering bill.

“Most of the expenses for external catering and hosting/accommodations are related to special events (African-American honor roll, Latino honor roll, various parent conferences, employee award ceremonies, etc.), professional development for staff (retreats, principals meetings etc.), and nighttime meetings with families (District Advisory Committee, District English Language Advisory Committee). The list is long and there are hundreds of these events per year.”

The price tag is also very long. Perhaps there shouldn’t be hundreds of these events, or even a dozen of them, based on their prohibitive cost. Do people have to be bribed with food to come to the school at night to meet about student needs or work on committees?

What is the Urban Strategies Council?

The Oakland district spent a total of $113,995 on various conference centers/retreats for purposes unknown. The list included $19,290 to the Marconi Conference Center, $12,794 to the San Ramon Conference Center, $16,822 to the Scottish Rite Center, $12,498 to the Westerbeke Ranch and $15,000 to the YMCA Camp Arroyo.

Also questionable were the many dollars spent with various political and ethnic-based organizations in 2012-13.

The largest sum was the $734,436 paid to the Urban Strategies Council, which, according to our research, provided the school district with consultation regarding finance, fiscal management, budget development, human resource management and other functions. We have to wonder why a multi-billion dollar organization, run by highly paid professionals, must spend more than half of a million dollars for consultation about fundamental administrative functions.

The district also transferred $1.8 million to the East Bay Asian Youth Center, $75,701 to American Indian Child Resource, and $21,893 to the Oakland Asian Student Service. We imagine those are all good causes, but no school spending is above public scrutiny.

A total of $54,686 was spent for the “Attitudinal Healing Connection,” a workshop which teaches a “side-by-side professional development model, where teachers and students simultaneously learn,” and “works with teachers to integrate visual and cultural art into the curriculum, based on Common Core standards.”

Another $14,475 went to the Pacific Educational Group, a private non-profit organization that works with staff at public schools to convince them that American culture and education (and many educators) are fundamentally racist and that black and other minority students must have separate lessons, and be held to different standards, due to the nature of their cultures. What hogwash.

The district paid $272,417 to “Youth Together,” which is an organization fighting interracial violence, and $20,230 to “Beats, Rhymes and Life,” which is “rap therapy” for troubled teens.

Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report

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