By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — State Rep. David Craig, R-Vernon, is calling on Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers to investigate a state-funded education program after discovering it spent almost $500,000 last year on “five-star dining, luxury travel accommodations and employee lunches.”
Craig says his request for records has so far turned up evidence that eight of Wisconsin’s 12 Cooperative Educational Service Agencies misspent money in 2013.
The Republican says the revelation should prompt his colleagues to consider abolishing the program.
“This draws into suspicion the mere existence of the CESA layer of bureaucracy in supporting public education in Wisconsin,” Craig told Wisconsin Reporter late Wednesday. “I think the Legislature needs to take this information and determine whether or not that layer is needed or if these dollars would be best spent going directly into the school districts and classrooms.”
The taxpayer-funded Wisconsin CESA Statewide Network supports 12 regions throughout the state by allowing school districts to share CESA staff and equipment. CESAs are not state agencies, but they are funded by federal, state and local dollars.
CESA 7, which represents 38 school districts in East Central Wisconsin, wracked up $6,258 in bills at Marriott hotels and a $2,991 tab at New City Grill Bistro in 2013, according to credit card statements obtained by Craig’s office.
Wisconsin Reporter was not able to review those statements.
Craig’s staff says those same records show CESA 10, which serves 29 school districts in West Central Wisconsin, spent $4,323 at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa in December. The agency also spent: $3,514 on Delta Airline flights; $3,449 at the Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre for four gatherings; $950 at the Lake Hallie Golf Club; $575 at Munson Bridge Winery; and $448 at the Duncan Creek Wine Bar.
“It is repeated in CESA after CESA,” Craig said. “Every month they are having some type of staff get-together. That money, I think, is better spent in the school district directly, where we have a firm accounting of what’s going on via our school districts and our school boards, rather than having this intermediary that is obviously out of control and spending well beyond what it should be.”
CESAs are not under the direction of DPI, but state statutes require Evers to both supervise and audit the receipts and expenditures of all the agencies.
The state pays the CESA network $260,600 every year, which is divided among the 12 agencies, and each school district must collectively match the state’s contribution according to their percentage of average daily membership within CESA. The program is also funded by state special education aid, federal and DPI grants and federal pass-through dollars, Craig said in a Wednesday letter addressed to Evers.
Craig told Wisconsin Reporter that Evers and his staff need to redouble their efforts to ensure those taxpayer funds are being spent appropriately.
“While not inside their department, it is in their purview to make review of the situation,” Craig said. “For this to have gone on, presumably for years, is gravely concerning.”
Neither Evers nor Jesse Harness, commissioner of the CESA Statewide Network, could be reached for comment.
Craig says he was tipped off to the possible spending issues by the Milwaukee-based Citizens for Responsible Government, which ran into several hurdles while trying to get the CESAs to comply with its open records requests.
Craig told Evers in his letter he also faced similar problems and that only three of the CESAs fulfilled his open records requests promptly and without complication.
Craig said he was also astonished by the “inconsistent, obstructionist and cost-prohibitive” responses he received from seven of the CESAs, which jointly demanded that he pay $1,368 in advance for the documents. Craig says only eight of the CESAs have fulfilled his requests.
“Aside from the sheer cost of obtaining these records, the resistance from certain records custodians in producing these records was highly inappropriate and legally suspect,” Craig tells Evers in his letter.
Craig wants Evers to also look into the CESA network’s guidelines on handing open records requests.
“There needs to be some uniform policy,” Craig told Wisconsin Reporter. “Why are we getting willing CESA directors providing us the information we are seeking in some situations, and in other situations, a bill for hundreds of dollars for the records?”