VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Officials and citizens of the Virginia Beach school district have been fighting over the best way to address a $39 million budget deficit.

The superintendent proposed budget cuts earlier this year that would have eliminated junior varsity sports, most summer school classes, and hundreds of teachers and other employees, according to news reports.

Citizens protested and the school district backed away from that plan. But a few months later 245 first-year teachers were handed pink slips in a move that the district announced was final.

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So how can a school district with those types of money problems afford a lot of travel and restaurant tabs?

EAGnews recently inspected the district’s credit card statements and check registry for calendar year 2011. The records show that school officials spent more than $120,000 on hotels around the nation, more than $52,000 on commercial airlines, and almost $100,000 on a travel agency.

They also dropped more than $60,000 at various restaurants, with more than 100 credit card charges at Panera Bread and Jason’s Deli.

We contacted district officials to ask them to explain the necessity of this sort of spending, particularly at a time when budgets are tight and layoffs are necessary.

District spokesperson Lauren Wicks said “it is what it is” in response to the spending.  She indicated that the district would respond “when and if” local media decide to pick up this story.

That means it’s up to newspapers and television stations in the Virginia Beach area to properly alert citizens and make the school justify its spending.

In the meantime we’ll be content to share the details of what we found.

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$270,612.73 spent on travel

Loews Hotel Philadelphia

The Virginia Beach school district had 348 credit card charges at hotels in 2011, for a total of $119,460.03. Two checks were written for hotels, adding $4,125 to the total.

Several expensive excursions stood out from the rest.

Five credit card charges were made at the Hilton Garden Inn (location unknown) on April 30 for a total of $3,430.35.

Four charges were made at Hyatt Hotels Dallas on July 2 for a total of $3,979.

Seven charges were made at the Hyatt Hotels Regency (location unknown) on April 13 for a total of $2,886.94.

Five charges were made at the Loews Hotel Philadelphia for a total of $6,370.60.

Six charges were made at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel on June 16 for a total of $6,415.80.

Two in-state trips also proved pretty expensive. Eight charges were made at the Sheraton Roanoke Hotel between Oct. 26-28 for a total of $3,098.22. Nine charges were made at the Omni Hotels Charlottesville between March 10-15 for a total of $4,765.23.

There were also several trips with only one or two charges that added up to a lot of money.  A single charge at the Hyatt Grand Convent in Connecticut on May 27 came to $1,816.27. Two charges at the Marriott Atlanta Marquis totaled $2,012.50. Two charges at the Marriott Marquis (same place?) on Oct. 8 came to $2,286.16.

We have no firm ideas about the purpose of these trips, or how necessary they might have been, because the district refused to comment.

Our guess, based on prior experience, is that much of the travel was for educational conferences of some sort, which typically take place at rather expensive hotels.  We can also guess that at least part of the money came in the form of federal or state grants.

As we’ve stated so many times before – so what? Wasted tax dollars are wasted tax dollars, regardless of what level of government they came from. Perhaps Virginia Beach school officials should have requested that the travel grants be converted to operating funds to avoid a few teacher layoffs.

The travel costs didn’t stop there.

We counted 210 charges with various airlines, tabbing out at $52,064.18.

District officials apparently felt it was necessary to get some help with their travel bookings, at least part of the time. There were 58 charges with CI Travel Inc. for a total of $94,963.52.

Somebody ate well on the district’s dime

WEight WatchersVirginia Beach school district credit cards were used 478 times at various restaurants (and at least one pub) for a total of $60,246.17.

Somebody was clearly eating well.

Charges were made at a cross-section of nationally-known chain restaurants – Chili’s, Cracker Barrel, Dairy Queen, Chick-Fil-A, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, Hardees, IHOP, Krispy Kreme, Little Caesars, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway, to name a few.

One chain operation, Panera Bread, was the beneficiary of 62 school district charges totaling $6,378.48.

Another favorite was Jason’s Deli (47 charges totaling $6,294.38).

Some individual expenditures that stood out on the food tab included a $1,000 charge at a Chili’s on Sept. 2, a $699.90 charge at a Hardees on May 31, a $2,451.45 charge at Jays Deli (not the same as Jason’s Deli, as far as we can tell) on Aug. 23, a $748.75 charge at Tropical Smoothie on Sept. 1, and a $6,067 charge at the Waterloo Ice House on Feb. 2.

The district’s check register offered a few interesting items. Eight were written to a place called PMS Deli for a total of $4,533.23. Six checks were written to Weight Watchers for $8,922.22, and one was written to Sweetwater Cuisine for $1,950.

Who enjoyed all the food and travel, and why was it necessary in a tight budget year? Your guess is as good as ours.

Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report