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Price Tag $500K: Baltimore Schools Under Fire for Wild Spending Spree (That Included a Trip to Hooters)

"These are a fraction of a budget...The expectation is at the end of the day, the [educational] outcomes improve."

The Baltimore school system is coming under fire after The Baltimore Sun obtained its spending reports through a Maryland Public Information Act request.

Though Americans are often told they need to pay more taxes for teachers (and "roads and bridges"), it seems as though the city of Baltimore mismanaged roughly half a million dollars of taxpayer money over the last year and a half.

The Baltimore Sun begins (all subsequent emphasis added):

Despite tightening school budgets and a perpetual rallying cry for more funding, Baltimore school administrators spent roughly $500,000 during the past year and a half on expenses such as a $7,300 office retreat at a downtown hotel, $300-per-night stays at hotels, and a $1,000 dinner at an exclusive members-only club, credit card statements show.

City school officials defend the majority of the credit card expenditures... as "the cost of doing business," saying only a handful of "outliers" show questionable judgment or disregard for taxpayer money.

"We are working around the clock to engage our partners and move our agenda forward," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "Every transaction has a business purpose in mind."

Among those transactions were a $450-per-person office retreat at the downtown Hilton, during which the 16 employees of the Information Technology Department were also treated to a $500 dinner at Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao; and a $264 lunch for students at Hooter's. 

The Baltimore Sun continues:

A review of credit card transactions and receipts by The Sun found that the bulk of the expenditures — about $300,000, generated by 16 central office employees — were made under a new procurement-card program that has operated with virtually no controls or oversight since it began in January 2011.

Card statements show that many of the expenditures violated the school system's own protocols and restrictions for use of the cards, such as a prohibition on using them for travel or to buy gifts for employees.

[...]

Still, the schools chief — whose card, sometimes used by his assistant, incurred a $66.77 charge to Victoria's Secret on Valentine's Day that was later removed after the system reported it as fraudulent — defended the program.

Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system, said that $67,000 in travel to conferences for a handful of administrators-- including an $8,000 trip to Las Vegas for a bullying conference-- is merely an indication of the school's "overinvestment in professional development."

Other outrageous charges reportedly include, via the Baltimore Sun:

One cardholder charged $97,000 worth of student leadership grant funds to the card to take students on several trips out of town.

Several cardholders exceeded the $500-per-transaction and $1,500-per-month limits imposed by the rules, and officials said that many of the cards were permitted to have no limits at all. And those who did have spending limits circumvented them by splitting charges into multiple transactions, which is also prohibited.

[...]

About $4,700 worth of transactions made by [Jerome Oberlton's] department included trips to retail stores like Bath & Body Works, Ross, Walmart, the Dollar Tree and BJ's Wholesale Club to buy snacks and refreshments, and gifts and decorations for holiday banquets, birthdays and baby shower celebrations, records show.

City school officials have ordered Jerome Olberton to pay back $5,000 of the dishonest charges, saying: "We have to remind people that they are using resources entrusted to them by the citizens and that they understand that just because it might be good intent, it might not be right — or look right."

Edwards added: "But we believe there's almost always a purpose. And it always has to do with the work of children."

Though an investigation is underway, City schools CEO Andrés Alonso tried to downplay the theft, saying: "These are a fraction of a budget, are budget-approved expenses and categories...The expectation is at the end of the day, the [educational] outcomes improve."

Click here to read the Baltimore Sun's entire report.

(H/T: Weasel Zippers)

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