LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Funny thing about Kentucky’s Jefferson County school district, which is largely comprised of the city of Louisville:

Last May, citing budget concerns, the district laid off 41 teachers. In August the school board increased property taxes by 1.4 percent.

The district is also helping fund a study that will supposedly prove that Kentucky public schools are underfunded.

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Sounds like money is pretty tight, doesn’t it?

But in the 2012-13 academic year, the Jefferson County district spent a whopping $298,039 on hotel accommodations, $165,861 on travel agencies, more than $100,000 on restaurant and catering tabs, $355,981 on legal fees and $243,287 on various forms of entertainment for students.

On top of that, the 10 highest paid administrators made a combined $1.7 million in salary, and the district spent nearly $17 million on a handful of pointless contractual perks for union teachers.

These folks really consider their district underfunded?

As part of the continuing “Where Your School Dollars Go” series, EAGnews recently obtained checking account and other financial records from the Jefferson County school district for the 2012-13 school year.

The records provided numerous examples of questionable spending done during a financially challenging time for the district.

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To their credit, district officials did their best to cooperate and help us understand why different transactions were made. Most other districts we’ve dealt with have ignored our pleas for explanations, forcing us to speculate for readers.

School officials also informed us that since 2011 they’ve been instructed to constantly look for ways “to ensure that tax dollars are being spent more responsibly.”

Remember, the spending we discovered was only a portion of the district’s 2012-13 budget. We were able to uncover $188,237,722; the total district budget for 2012-13 was more than $1.2 billion.

We hope our work inspires citizens and local journalists to dig even deeper and find what are sure to be more examples of questionable spending.

Government that nobody is watching is the government that’s going to waste the most tax dollars.

Pricey hotels, big restaurant tabs

We came across 98 payments the school district made to various hotels around the nation in 2012-13. Sixty-one of those payments were for more than $1,000 and 16 were for at least $5,000.

Some of the most expensive stays were at the Fern Valley Hotel and Conference Center ($42,941 – enough to employ a teacher for a year), the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center ($8,840), The Hilton Orlando ($10,436), the Holiday Inn Hurstbourne ($14,864), the Mariott Louisville Downtown ($8,960), the Peabody Little Rock Hotel ($7,005), the Rough River Lodge ($14,330), the Vail Marriot Mountain Resort and Spa ($8,268), and the Venetian Casino Resort ($13,908).

Apparently most of the hotel costs were associated with professional development conferences for educators, which is a common (and questionable) expense for public schools.

“Our general recommendation is that staff attending conferences stay in the conference hotel,” wrote district spokesman Ben Jackey, in response to our question about the hotel costs. “This eliminates the need for ground transportation during the conference. Additionally, the conference hotel often has reduced conference-negotiated rates.”

The $42,941 tab at the Fern Valley establishment was the result of reduced rates? We would hate to see what the cost would have been at normal prices. The bottom line is that many of these conference hotels are very pricey, and there are clean, and much cheaper, rooms available, usually in the same general vicinity.

It would be worth the cost of a few cab rides to have the teachers stay at less expensive hotels. Would that ruin some of the fun for the travelers? Yes. But it’s supposed to be about business, not fun.

Most of the district’s travel agent business went to one firm – Jack’s Travel Professionals ($108,598). There were also payments to All About Travel ($24,174), Advantage Travel Services ($17,091), Travel Options ($13,250), Ohio Valley Travel ($1,546) and Group Travel Planners ($1,199).

A big portion of the district’s restaurant tab – just over $1 million – was spent at Papa John’s as part of the school lunch program. But that still left more than $100,000 in restaurant spending that was not used for daily student meals.

Some of the food tabs were pretty large, including another $25,586 to Papa John’s for non-lunch purposes, $20,210 at Mark’s Feed Store, $7,046 at Moe’s Southwest Grill, $3,374 at the Catering Company, $7,747 at Subway, $2,819 at St. Matthews Catering, $5,260 at Sincerely Yours Catering and $2,444 at Ladyfingers Fine Catering.

“Generally, the restaurants mentioned are used for catering,” the district replied to EAGnews. “Events that are catered are typically night time parent and parent and student events, such as Literacy Night, designed to encourage parental involvement.”

Can’t the parents have dinner at home before coming to the school events? Do they have to be bribed with free food to take an interest in their children’s education?

Costly field trips and ‘retreats’

The biggest single legal cost was $124,579 for Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs, which the district called “our general board attorneys.” We can’t help but wonder if school districts, particularly large ones, have become too accustomed to having high-price attorneys available, and sometimes throw work at them that could be accomplished in house for much less money.

The district’s $243,287 entertainment/recreation tab was spent on students, mostly for field trips and special events. There were field trips to the zoo for students in 13 schools, field trips to the ballet for students in three schools, and one field trip to the Kentucky Center. Included in this cost were dance instruction for students, an after-school arts program for students, and a professional development session for staff.

Those all seem like worthwhile endeavors, but were they worth spending more than a quarter of a million dollars, particularly during a period of massive budget deficits?

Other questionable costs included $38,636 for “retreats for six schools” at General Butler State Park, and a comparably measly $9,536 for retreats for nine other schools. Are retreats absolutely necessary? What exactly are they retreating from, and can’t they do it closer to home at a much lower cost?

Union perks, overpaid administrators

The school district is also clearly guilty of negotiating an overly generous collective bargaining agreement with its teachers union.

Among the various payouts stipulated by the labor contract were $2.8 million in extra salary for teachers who had an extra student or two in their classrooms; $2.8 million in reimbursement to staff for unused sick and personal days; and $11.2 million in annual, automatic “step raises” for nearly every teacher, regardless of their performance in the classroom.

That’s nearly $17 million spent on absolutely nothing even remotely connected to student learning. What an incredible, inexcusable waste!

The same could be said for the salaries of the top 10 administrators in the district. At the top of the list was Superintendent Donna Hargens, who collected a cool $276,000, general counsel Rosemary Miller ($175,214), Chief Data Management and Planning Programming Officer Robert Rodosky ($170,339), Chief Financial Officer J. Cordelia Hardin ($170,130), Chief Academic Officer Dewey Hensley ($163,304), Assistant Superintendent for Academic Achievement Sandra Ledford ($162,113), and Chief Operations Officer Michael Raisor ($160,330).

There were also three assistant superintendents for academic achievement – Brian Shumate ($160,057), Lynne Wheat ($156,173), and Paige Hartstern ($156,092).

Their combined salaries (without benefits) added up to nearly $1.75 million. Outrageous.

Shouldn’t a few of those positions been combined to save big dollars? Couldn’t some of those officers have sacrificed a few bucks to help the district avoid the 41 layoffs?

The district notes that a few years ago there was a superintendent, three assistant superintendents and 18 cabinet members, costing much more than the combined salaries of current administrators. The new superintendent cut the number down to six cabinet members.

Perhaps she should keep cutting.

 Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report