By M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Ever been to the Scottsdale Plaza Resort?
Oh, you simply must go.
On 40 beautifully landscaped acres in the shadow of the Valley of the Sun’s famed Camelback Mountain, the resort includes five swimming pools, lighted tennis courts, Arizona’s largest Whirlpool spa, and award-winning dining, according to the hotel website.
Haven’t been to the Plaza Resort? That’s OK.
If you’re a Madison taxpayer, your tax dollars have.
The Madison Metropolitan School District – via taxpayers – spent $2,674.35 at the hotel complex on July 1, 2011.
Madison school employees paid for the four-star accommodations on district-issued credit cards, among multiple cards handed out for such expenses to different district departments.
There was a lot of credit card spending in the Madison school district in 2011, according to an investigation by EAGnews.org, flagship website of the Michigan-based Education Action Group, a nonprofit conservative organization that advocates for education reform.
In total, district employees racked up $44,723 worth of hotel bills and $10,036 worth of restaurant bills in last year, according to EAGnews, which reviewed district credit card statements and check registers.
On the spending list:
- $15,474.22 charged at Hyatt Hotels in Chicago on July 13, 2011.
- $3,133.55 at the Sheraton NY Hotel and Towers on Jan. 6, 2011.
- $4,736 in charges at Hotel 71 in downtown Chicago on Dec. 19, 2011
- Two transactions –each worth $288.96 – were made at the Rio Suites in Las Vegas on April 27, 2011.
- $223.57 in charges at the Heidel House Resort and Spa on June 23. There was another charge of $756.64 at the same resort six days later.
The spending occurred as Madison Metro and its teachers stressed over apparent deep cuts in state aid and the implementation of Act 10, the law, led by Gov. Scott Walker, that gutted collective bargaining for most public employees.
“Not only were we astonished at the amount of money spent on expensive hotels and restaurants during a school year when the district was making lots of spending cuts, we were surprised to find out that there is very little central oversight regarding credit card usage,” said Steve Gunn, editor-in-chief of the Education Action Group Foundation, Inc.
The district issues multiple credit cards for various departments in each of its 55 schools and other buildings, Candie Steffen, manager of the district’s accounting office, according to EAGnews. Each building has a site manager who is supposed to keep track of all purchases and receipts for seven years.
No records are forwarded to any central office in the district, the investigation found. Some purchases may be inspected periodically by auditors, but there is little oversight regarding who uses credit cards to pay for what.
“Our policy is that (receipts) are to be retained at the card holder’s level,” Steffen told EAG. “So if it’s a school card holder, that is usually retained in the office. If it’s a district person, it might be in my building here. So no, they do not all get forwarded.”
Gunn said his organization is not accusing the district of any illegal activity, but it does bring up the question of accountability over big expenditures on arguably “unnecessary things.”
James Howard, president of the Madison Metropolitan School Board, told Wisconsin Reporter the nearly $55,000 in credit card charges for hotels and restaurants represent a fraction of the district’s approximately $376 million budget. The board, Howard said, thought the expenditures were “reasonable.”
“The real question is for us, do we have procedures in place, checks and balances to make sure we don’t have unreasonable expenses in this area?” he said, noting the board is considering that question as the result of EAG’s investigation.
It boils down to simple economics, Howard said.
“When I travel for my real job, if I go to New York, I can’t stay in the Ritz-Carlton. My budget doesn’t allow that,” Howard said. “These are public funds. We can’t stay in the most expensive hotels. We don’t want to put you in one-star hotel either, but maybe we’re a two-star or three-star organization. If we made some of those mistakes in past, we won’t make them again.”
The EAGnews investigation also found district staffers ran up a significant tab with grant money from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus package.
“The IDEA grant money was used for credit card charges at the Caribe Royal Resort ($855), the Kahler Grand Hotel ($4,232.38), the Stoney Creek Inn ($1,190), the Little America Hotel ($4,107.60), and the Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin Dells ($928.76). That totals $11,313.14,” the EAG investigation found.
“IDEA grant money was also spent at upscale restaurants. On July 13, 2011 there was a credit card charge totaling $261.62 for Dali’s Restaurant, a Spanish tapas bar. Then on July 14 and 16 there were three credit card charges to Legal Sea Foods totaling $520.42.”