TOLEDO, Ohio – The voters and taxpayers of Toledo are generous people.

In November they overwhelmingly approved a 6.5 mill, five-year tax renewal which will keep the school district’s budget stable for a while.

That’s more than a lot of districts, particularly in urban areas, can claim these days.

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While we can’t criticize citizens for supporting their local schools, we have to wonder if the people of Toledo are well versed on the types of things that the district spends money on.

EAGnews recently spent several weeks inspecting Toledo school district credit card and other financial records for the 2012-13 school year, as part of our continuing “Where Your School Dollars Go” series.

The series is designed to inspire taxpayers and local reporters to become more aware of public school spending and hold their school leaders more accountable.

We found a number of expenditures that Toledo taxpayers might find interesting, or perhaps a bit disturbing: A total of $5 million on severance pay for retiring teachers, $914,715 on legal services, $467,092 on paid professional leave for teachers, $398,241 for new cars, $166,744 on hotels and travel agencies, $110,862 on charter buses and tours,  and $56,778 for catering services.

Was all that spending necessary? Could some of that money been spent to more directly benefit students, particularly in a district with a very poor academic record?

Note that all the expenditures we found in our research totaled $128,930,380, which is less than half of the $354,560,000 the district expects to spend in the 2013-14 school year. That means there is still a lot of spending records for citizens to inspect.

Travel, restaurants and new cars

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grand ballroomMembers of the Toledo school district staff were frequent travelers in 2012-13, logging $108,592 in hotel bills (83 separate charges) and $58,152 in travel agency bills (27 separate charges).

The hotel bills were for staff who attended out-of-town professional conferences, according to district spokeswoman Patricia Mazur. The hotels were chosen by conference organizers, she said.

The organizers sure picked some very nice, expensive hotels.

The most expensive stay for district personnel was at the LaSalle Hotel Indianapolis, where there were 14 charges for a total of $39,416. That’s enough to pay the salary of a typical first year union teacher.

The district also dropped $15,715 at the Empire Hotel in New York, $6,510 at the Wyndham Hotel in Indianapolis, $6,199 at the Drury Inn and Suites in Columbus, $5,853 at the Blackwell Inn in Columbus, $5,425 at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, and $4,654 at the J.W. Marriott in Indianapolis.

There were seven more hotel tabs for at least $1,000 each charged to the district.

The vast majority of the travel agency expense was through the Heinz Kretschmer Travel Bureau, where the district ran up a tab of $40,944.

This type of expenditure is common for public school districts, but that doesn’t make it excusable, particularly in tight financial times. And really, given the fact that schools exist on tax money, all times should be considered tight financial times.

While Mazur did not specify, many school districts tell us that the majority of these travel costs are covered with state and federal grant money. That’s no excuse. It’s still tax money, coming out of our pockets.

Just how much knowledge do educators gain from these out-of-town trips? Do they learn anything that they couldn’t learn through online conferencing? And if they have to travel, couldn’t they stay at less expensive hotels and still attend nearby conferences?

Inquiring taxpayers might want to know.

At first glance the district’s restaurant tab of $176,057 appears startling. But the vast majority of that amount – $164,722 – went to two restaurants that provided pizza for school lunches, and the school resold the pizza to students.

But that still leaves $11,335 in restaurant tabs, which is significant. Records show that $2,250 of that amount was spent in a single charge at Doc Watson’s Flavorful Food and Spirits in Toledo. Another $2,348 was spent in nine separate charges at Marco’s Pizza. The district also spent $1,968 in a single charge at Glendale Garden Café and $1,095 in a single charge at Nick and Jimmy’s.

The district also spent $56,778 on catering including $10,939 at Chef Les Catering and $18,444 at Premiere Catering.

There were 26 charges for a total of $398,241 at four different car dealerships. That money was spent to replace 21 vehicles in the district’s “white fleet,” according to Mazur.

We will trust the district and assume that it really does need to have its own fleet of cars (as opposed to paying employees mileage), and that the nearly $400,000 price tag was before trade-in value was deducted. But we can’t say for sure.

Expensive lawyers and employee perks

Much of the district’s $914,715 legal tab can’t be blamed solely on school officials.

As Mazur noted, those costs included $30,000 to lawyers who assisted with union contract negotiations, $75,000 for employee arbitration (and related) hearings, and roughly $100,000 for employment termination proceedings.  It’s the price we pay for having organized labor in our schools.

Other legal fees included roughly $70,000 for worker compensation hearings, about $55,000 for Board of Revision property value hearings and about $85,000 to deal with ongoing state and federal civil rights investigations.

It’s too bad so many tax dollars meant to educate children have to end up in the pockets of lawyers.

Speaking of union-related costs, the district also spent a considerable amount of money on various provisions included in the teacher union collective bargaining agreement.

For instance, the district spent $467,092 on salaries for teachers and staff who were on “professional leave” during the school year, presumably for professional training.

But isn’t that a lot to pay teachers when they are not teaching? As we wondered above, is the knowledge teachers gain at out-of-town conferences and other professional functions worth the investment? Is paid leave necessary for professional development?

The district also paid out just over $5 million in 2012-13 on severance pay for retiring teachers. Severance pay is generally unused sick and personal day compensation that is cashed out at the time of retirement, often at the departing teacher’s final and highest rate of pay.

Those are just two examples of expensive union perks mandated by the Toledo teachers union contract.

A handful of administrators also made out well. The 10 highest paid employees in the district were compensated a combined total of $1.1 million in straight salary in 2012-13. That total would be frighteningly higher if fringe benefits were figured in.

Tops on the salary list was Superintendent Jerome Pecko, who made $175,519, followed by Treasurer Matt Cleland ($131,806), Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault ($128,604), Assistant Superintendent Romules Durant ($117,392), Assistant Superintendent Brian Murphy ($113,584), Business Manager Jim Gant ($109,762), Chief Human Resource Officer Cheryl Spieldenner ($103,457), Principal Robin Wheatley ($99,170), Principal David Yenrick ($95,462) and Principal Treva Jeffries ($95,334).

The argument could be made that top talent is needed to turn around a troubled school district, and top talent costs money. On the other hand, those making big salaries are generally expected to deliver big results.

So how have Toledo students been doing academically? One example are 8th grade state test scores from 2012-13.

Statewide, 77 percent of students scored at or above proficiency in math, while only 54 percent of Toledo students made the grade. In science the state percentage was 69 while the Toledo percentage was 40. In reading the state percentage was 86 while the Toledo average was 71.

The district received a D grade from the Ohio Department of Education for student performance in 2012-13 and an F for student growth and progress.

Those are not big results.

Ashleigh Costello and Alissa Mack contributed to this report