TUCSON, Ariz. – If you want to put your finger on a public school district’s priorities, just check out its spending habits.

The Tucson, Arizona district is a good example. Faced with a recent budget deficit as high as $17 million, the school board voted to close 11 schools and lay off more than 100 employees.

Yet during fiscal 2013 the district rang up more than $300,000 in hotel bills, $183,000 on a travel agency tab, more than $82,000 in airline expenses, more than $200,000 in student travel expenses, more than $70,000 in car rental fees and more than $50,000 in restaurant and catering tabs.

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The district also hired a full-time lobbyist to represent the district’s political interests at a cost of $40,000 per year.

As Dr. Mark Stegeman, a Tucson school board member, said at the time, “It seems hard for TUSD to argue to the community that we are in a dire budget situation when we hire a lobbyist that most districts would consider a luxury.”

District officials say at least some of the traveling was done by students and paid for with money raised by students. We’ll take their word for that. But that still has to leave a lot of money going out the door for unnecessary expenses at a time when schools were closed and teachers were laid off.

The courts aren’t doing anything to help the district conserve money for student needs, either. The district spent a whopping $826,371 on legal fees in 2012-13, and much of that was spent on lawyers helping the school comply with a U.S. District Court racial desegregation order.

The court also ordered the district to pay a “special master” to oversee the desegregation effort at $250 per hour, which totaled $217,156 in 2012-13. They were also forced to hire an advisor for the special master, costing $21,744.

Desegregation is certainly a worthwhile goal, but does it have to come with crippling costs for the already struggling school district? Can’t someone help the district with those costs?

Again, it’s a question of priorities, for district and state officials and the courts. At a time when the school district is obviously struggling to provide basic services, they should all ask themselves what is absolutely necessary in terms of spending, and what could be cut to preserve every possible dollar for academics.

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EAGnews closely inspected check and credit card records for the Tucson school district for fiscal 2013 as part of our ongoing series “Where Your School Dollars Go.” We have done similar spending inspections in dozens of school districts around the nation.

Our goal is to promote transparency in public schools and inspire citizens and local journalists to more closely monitor local school spending and hold their district leaders accountable.

Hotels, Travel Agencies and Disney

The Tucson district had 173 charges at various hotels in fiscal 2013 for a total of $307,080.

A total of $13,828 was spent in five different transactions at the Doubletree Hotel in Tucson. There were 12 charges for $15,265 at the Granlibakken Conference Center and Resort in Tahoe City, California. There were four charges for $17,115 at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson, and four charges for $10,822 at the Westin La Paloma Resort in Tucson.

Overall, 93 of the recorded hotel transactions came to more than $1,000.

The district said the majority of the trips are student trips, paid for with student activity funds (money raised by students).

The district also spent $183,794 with the Rio Grande Travel Centers, a travel agency that caters to “corporate travel and leisure.” There were no details listed about what that money paid for, but there’s little doubt it involved even more travel and pricey hotel stays.

Another $209,652 was spent on educational travel for students, including one charge for $23,090 for what was described in records as “Brightspark Educational to Northbrook” and 15 charges for $24,204 for “EF Educational Tours Cambridge.”

The Tucson district also spent a whopping $492,344 on charter bus/motorcoach travel, including $415,435 on Mountain View Tours Tucson.

There were also 10 charges for a total of $42,128 to “Disney Destinations Anaheim,” “Disney Destinations Lake Buena Vista,” “Disneyland Resort Anaheim” and “The Walt Disney Company Anaheim.”

District officials said the Disney outings were funded with donations from parents.

The district’s air fare tab came to $82,211 and included 105 charges for $30,157 with Southwest Airlines, 49 charges for $21,317 with American Airlines and 24 charges for $14,849 with United Airlines.

District officials told EAGnews that many of the travel expenses were covered by money that was raised by students.

Assuming that’s true, the hotels, airlines, student trips, travel agency, charter bus and Disney expenses came to a healthy $1.3 million and some change. If students raised all or most of that, it would’ve taken a lot of car washes and bake sales.

There’s little doubt that at least some of the travel costs were covered by state and/or federal grants. As Tucson officials pointed out, they are required to have staffers attend professional development conferences as a condition of accepting grants and they have no control where the conferences will be.

As we’ve repeatedly stated, that really makes no difference. They could stay at less expensive hotels in any town. Grant money is still tax money taken from hard-working Americans, and should be spent in the best possible way.

Why can’t the states allow school districts to apply various forms of grant money for general operations in years when the budget is particularly tight, rather than forcing them to spend it on lesser needs when schools are being closed and teachers laid off?

Again, it’s a matter of priorities.

Money spent here and there 

The district’s car rental tab came to $70,809. That included 27 charges for $45,771 at Enterprise Rental Car in Tempe and 20 charges for $14,734 at Enterprise in Tucson.

The restaurant and catering tab came to $51,072. That included seven charges totaling $7,228 at El Molinito Café in Tucson, 52 charges totaling $6,744 at Eegees in Tucson, six charges totaling $6,907 at Little Mexico Restaurant in Tucson, four charges totaling $2,170 at Bianchi’s Pizza in Tucson, one charge for $2,972 at Rincon Market Catering in Tucson, and two charges totaling $2,083 at L’Chaim Catering in Tucson.

The district said most of the food expenses are for student events such as honors nights, recognition events, proms, etc.

The district’s entertainment/activities spending, presumably on behalf of students, came to a healthy $232,609. It included $117,698 for museums, zoos and gardens, $22,409 for music DJs, $22,586 for the symphony/ballet, $21,777 for bowling, movies and skating, and $11,317 for amusement parks.

The district said at least some of those activities were paid for with student activity funds.

Another $83,312 was spent to rent convention or conference centers or country clubs. Included on that list were six charges totaling $30,000 at Skyline Country Club, eight charges totaling $19,272 at the Tucson Convention Center, four charges totaling $13,833 at La Mariposa in Tucson and five charges totaling $13,229 at the Savoy Opera House in Tucson.

District officials said the venues were used for various activities like College Night (paid for by participating universities) and room rentals for student dances.

 Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report