School conference hotels, food, travel cost taxpayers $277,086

Batavia Unit District 101 Superintendent Jack Barshinger wasn't expecting to cover the $1,929.75 tab at Morton's Steakhouse in Chicago for several of the district's board members, administrators and some family members during November's statewide school leadership conference.

Thanks to district taxpayers, he didn't.

“In the past, one of our vendors has sponsored that dinner,” Barshinger said. “We found out late that that vendor was not going to do that this year. That was one expenditure that was not planned.”

Despite the unexpected cost, it didn't stop members of the 16-person entourage from ordering items like a $57 New York strip steak dinner, five $15 lobster bisques and two “hot chocolate cake” desserts at $14.50 each. It would have been three cake desserts, but one was comped by Morton's to celebrate a “retirement” in the group, according to the receipt provided by the district as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. Barshinger is stepping down at the end of the year.

Did District 101's school board Vice President Jack Hinterlong find the cost for the dinner to be exorbitant?

“For eating in Chicago and the number of people we had? No,” he said.

That meal made up the lion's share of the district's $2,616.61 food costs at the conference, but District 101 taxpayers also covered $5,610.63 in hotel bills, $947.87 in travel expenses, $66.56 for incidentals like in-room Internet, and $4,125 for conference registration and class fees. The total cost to District 101 taxpayers to send 16 administrators and board members to the conference was $13,366.67, according to the district's financial records.

That type of spending wasn't rare among suburban school districts. Conference-related bills for 89 suburban school districts totaled more than $570,000. Almost half of those costs — $277,086.18 — went to cover hotel, food, travel and incidental expenses, according to financial records. The rest went to conference registration fees.

“We've got school districts all over the suburbs crying poor and taking what is effectively a taxpayer-paid vacation,” said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, an organization that tracks and analyzes government spending.

Three of the 92 suburban districts whose records were analyzed did not send anyone to the conference in November: Rosemont Elementary District 78, Northbrook Elementary District 27 and Rondout Elementary District 72 near Libertyville.

Only 20 districts that sent representatives to the conference did not cover any food costs, according to the analysis. The other 69 districts combined to spend $40,554.42 on food, with some districts spending thousands of dollars on dinner parties for the conference goers. Among them:

Ÿ West Aurora Unit District 129 taxpayers were charged $2,345 for a meal at the Capital Grille for 21 people.

Ÿ Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 taxpayers covered a $2,213 banquet at III Forks steakhouse for 21 people.

Ÿ Naperville Unit District 203 taxpayers spent $1,867.70 on a 30-person party at Luxbar.

The total would have been $100 more for District 203 taxpayers if board members Susan Crotty and Jackie Romberg hadn't reimbursed the district $50 apiece for the cost of their spouses' meals.

“I've done that every year,” Crotty said. “I don't think the community should pay for my husband's dinner.”

District 203 spent the most of any district analyzed, sending 19 people at a total cost of $17,183.58.

District officials are quick to note that these conferences and dinners do not violate the state's government-transparency laws. State law provides special dispensation against Open Meetings Act violations for board members to attend such conferences together and legal experts said that allowance carries over to dinners at the conference, as well.

“They have to police themselves,” said Maryam Judar, a community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst. “The question is whether they're discussing public business at these dinners, and if they are, it would have to be witnessed.”

In addition to transparency concerns, many critics believe the districts need to adjust spending policies for these types of conferences to better reflect the economic conditions of the time.

Several school districts allowed conference attendees to charge taxpayers for Internet use at hotels. Kildeer-Countryside Elementary District 96 taxpayers covered a $17.44 charge for a conference goer to use the hotel's fitness center. Leyden High School District 212 taxpayers were charged $24 for laundry service. District 212 taxpayers also paid for hotel movies, as did taxpayers in Elgin Area U-46 and Wheeling Elementary District 21. Fox Lake Elementary District 114 officials said they would review the district's spending policies after it was reported in this column two weeks ago that representatives charged taxpayers for the movies “Ted” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2,” Garrett's caramel and cheese gourmet popcorn, and limousine rides.

“All taxpayer dollars should be treated with a lot of care and respect because it's hard-earned money to be used for government purposes,” said David From, Illinois state director of Americans for Prosperity, a government accountability watchdog organization. “I would hope like any government organization (these districts) are reviewing how they can be more efficient and careful with taxpayer funds.”

Along with spouses, some school officials even bring children to the conference. Philosophies vary among school districts regarding paying for meals for school officials' families. There appear to be no additional hotel costs for bringing spouses and children along, according to the districts' financial records. The conference coincides with the annual holiday light parade along Michigan Avenue.

All but 21 districts charged some type of hotel room costs to taxpayers. Lodging alone at various downtown hotels amounted to $202,053.86 of the 89 districts' total conference costs.

Suburban school officials defended their decisions to stay in hotel rooms rather than commute, contending early workshop start times would have made it difficult for many participants to attend otherwise.

“It is a good point, but we have traditionally stayed because the sessions start at 8 a.m. and we often have events that go into the evening,” said Salt Creek Elementary District 48 Superintendent John Correll. “These folks are giving of their time and we're trying to treat them according to the effort they are affording our district.” The district's offices in Villa Park are a little more than 20 miles away from the hotel at which the District 48 contingent stayed — about a 30-minute drive. Metra schedules show a train ride from Villa Park to downtown Chicago is roughly 40 minutes.

Many districts allowed representatives to drive themselves, while taxpayers covered daily parking fees that ranged between $30 and $60. The combined travel costs of the districts — parking, mileage reimbursement, cabs and trains — amounted to $33,430.10.

But like so many of their school district brethren, District 48 officials believe the value of the conference exceeds the actual cost to taxpayers. They point to the array of workshops, seminars and classes they say are uniquely available at the conference, which includes topics like performance evaluation regulations, pension reform, legal updates and fiduciary responsibilities. The conference is jointly sponsored by the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.

John Jasek was the only District 48 board member to not attend the conference, but he would have if he'd been able to go. Jasek believes the conference makes school boards work better together.

“If you think training is expensive you ought to try stupidity,” he said.

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  A 16-person group from Batavia Unit District 101 spent $1,929.75 on a dinner party that included a $57 New York strip steak meal, multiple $15 lobster bisques and two cake desserts that cost $14.50 each. Brian Hill/

What your school district spent

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