Movies about a foul-mouthed teddy bear and a sullen vampire, a $170 limousine ride from a hotel to a Brazilian steakhouse less than a mile away, and nearly $1,600 in valet parking fees were just some of the costs recently covered by Fox Lake District 114 taxpayers.
Those were part of a $13,756.20 tab from a weekend trip to a downtown Chicago conference for seven school board members and five administrators of the two-school district in November.
“The days are filled, so it's not like we're going down there and goofing around,” said Superintendent John Donnellan. “Do I think they abuse it? No.”
Board members either did not return calls and emails seeking comment or were unable to be reached.
District 114 wasn't the biggest spender. Among 91 suburban school district analyzed, Naperville Unit District 203 spent the most — $17,183.58 — to send 19 people to the three-day Illinois Association of School Boards conference. Other suburban schools boards' expenditures for the conference will be highlighted in this column over the next several Wednesdays.
District 114 also didn't have the highest cost per person at $1,146.35, according to the districts' financial documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. That distinction belongs to Warren Township High School District 121 in Gurnee, which sent nine people to the conference at a price tag of $1,300.27 each.
District 114 had the second-highest amounts in both categories. But it was how board members and administrators spent the money that raised eyebrows.
Ÿ Board Vice President Roger T. Smith Sr. spent $20.15 to watch a movie in his hotel room. According to a hotel representative who examined the bill, the movie was “Ted.”
Ÿ Smith spent $13.95 at Garrett Popcorn at Navy Pier for cheese- and caramel-flavored snacks.
Ÿ Lotus Elementary School Principal Matthew Peters spent $19 for two tickets to see “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2.”
Ÿ Donnellan spent $170 for a limousine to take the district's entourage eight-tenths of a mile from the Embassy Suites Hotel to the Fogo de Chao restaurant and back. Taxpayers did not pay for the dinner.
Ÿ The district covered $1,581 worth of “valet parking” fees at the hotel at $51 a night per car.
Donnellan said all expenses fell within the board's spending policies. However, the board's policy states: “Money shall not be advanced or reimbursed for ... anyone's personal expenses.”
Movies and popcorn sound like personal expenses to Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, an organization that tracks and analyzes government spending.
“This is a slap in the face to taxpayers,” she said. “This sounds more like a vacation than a working conference. In no scenario is 'Twilight' an effective use of taxpayer dollars.”
One of the key changes Rasmussen recommends is ending the $200 per diems given to conference attendees ahead of time. District 114 policy affords board members and district employees who travel a $200 stipend to spend at their discretion. They must submit receipts “if possible” and any leftover cash, according to the district's handbook.
“Per diems are a recipe for disaster,” Rasmussen said. “The problem is they're going to look for ways to spend it, and here it was movies and gourmet popcorn. What should happen is legitimate expenses should be reimbursed on a case-by-case basis.”
Donnellan defended the cash advances and said the board has cut the stipends down to the current level from $300 in the past.
“The reason we advance everyone $200 is some people are not in a position to where they have the money in their own budget to front the expenses,” Donnellan said.
He also said having everyone drive their own cars the nearly 60 miles from the school district's headquarters instead of carpooling or taking the train was a matter of “convenience” and “flexibility.”
That rationale troubles Rasmussen as well.
“They went the route that was geared toward the convenience of the individual instead of what was best for taxpayers,” she said. “They could have looked at alternatives. There are certainly cheaper self-parking options available.”
Donnellan said some spouses of the group also attended, but the district didn't cover any specific costs they incurred. In all, the district spent $4,125 on conference registration fees, $6,567.29 on hotel rooms, $588.85 on food, $2,386.03 on travel costs like parking, mileage and cabs, and $89.03 on incidentals like movies and Internet.
“School board members have a way to set things right and that's by paying back these costs and setting better policy so that it never happens again,” Rasmussen said.
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