DES MOINES — Waterloo educators spent more than $30,000 in federal dollars during training trips to Las Vegas and St. Louis, according to district records.
The money was targeted toward boosting achievement at two of the district’s poorest performing schools.
In Vegas, one teacher used taxpayer money at a Hooters restaurant, and others bought $30 steaks and submitted receipts that weren’t itemized, so the district had no way of knowing what was bought. A number included expenses for incidentals, such as snacks, which district policy forbids, records requested by Iowa Watchdog show.
In all, the district spent $32,910, which included airfare, hotel rooms and registration for the conferences, to train staff on ways to improve schools with high poverty and large minority-student populations. The money came from a $4.4 million pot of federal school improvement money awarded to Lincoln Elementary and Carver Middle schools.
Waterloo sent 11 teachers and administrators to Las Vegas in December 2010, the first year of the three-year grant, and another five to the same training in St. Louis in 2011.
“Looking at it, they made good decisions,” said Gary Norris, Waterloo superintendent. “It would be hard for me to believe that the intended use of the money be regarded as misspent or it didn’t accomplish the purpose we intended.”
District officials declined at least $85 in claimed expenses because they violated spending policies, according to district documents.
Those policies limit spending on daily meals to $43, and prohibit the purchase of alcohol. They also don’t allow people to cover incidentals, such as snacks or sodas, and set tips at 15 percent or less, said Deb Jacobs, an accountant with the district. She didn’t know of any policy outlining places where the educators could eat.
Waterloo and Des Moines school districts were the only two to receive the first round of federal grants, which provided money to turn around their lowest achieving schools within three years. The two, in return, promised to extend learning time, tie teacher and principal evaluations to student achievement, and provide teacher incentives to boost retention and reward student gains.
The districts, however, largely failed to make good on those assurances in the first year, a recent Iowa Watchdog review showed. The two, instead, used the money for programs and training not listed in their original grant application, and not approved by the state.
Norris and Jane Lindaman, Waterloo associate superintendent, have defended the Las Vegas and St. Louis trips, saying Iowa doesn’t offer training to help diverse urban districts. Also, the organization that hosted conferences — the Leadership and Learning Center in Colorado — sends professionals to the district to provide additional onsite training.
“Every time we make professional development decisions you have to weigh how many people it’s for and the urgency,” Norris said. “It would be appropriate that a persistently low-achieving school would spend taxpayer money to hear one of the top people in the nation talk about how to improve schools.”