27 Investigates: School board travel

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – School district money is supposed to be used by school boards to teach children science, reading, writing and other important skills.

But 27 Investigates found one local school board spends tens of thousands of dollars every year on trips to three and four star resorts, all in the name of school improvement.

Every year, members of the Youngstown City School Board go to conferences in places like New York City, San Diego, Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, often staying at four-star resorts such as Loew’s in Atlanta.

While the board is supposed to vote on and approve each trip and expenses for members, what is listed in their public meetings is often much less than what the school district actually pays. And school board members say they’re often the last to know.

“It was never reported back to the board how much was spent on traveling,” said Andrea Mahone, former school board member.

27 First News requested travel expenses for three years in the Youngstown district.  Each year covers at least 75 pages.

Mahone said during her time on the school board she knew of one instance where usable information was brought back on how to better manage the district’s busing system.

We found one trip for the 2012 National School Board Association Conference in Boston that was supposed to cost $8,900, according to what the board told the public.

Four school board members attended the conference and stayed at the Hilton and Renaissance Boston Waterfont Hotel. When the bills came in, the total tab was $10,100.

“That is against the law for that to happen. That is against every regulation and policy we have. Whatever is voted on in a school board meeting, the accounting department, the treasurer, should not pay a penny more than what the resolution asks for,” Mahone said.

To view documents detailing approved and actual expenditures for the Boston conference, click on the following links: Travel expenses approved  Youngstown School Board Boston Conference 2012

We found several hotels and motels near the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel with pricing anywhere from $25 to over $100 less than what members paid. These accommodations were located 0.2 to two miles away from the conference center and the Renaissance Boston Waterfront. See below to view an interactive map of locations and pricing.

Transportation to and from the conference should be considered for the off-site accommodations. A one-day pass on the city’s subway and bus transportation system costs $11, a weekly pass can be purchased for $18.  Taxi fare within a two mile radius of the hotels listed averages between $10 and $15.

The extra expenses racked up on each trip were sometimes thousands of dollars. Taxpayers picked up the tab for taxis, meals and baggage fees. Mahone said the public shouldn’t pay those.

One practice has been discontinued, Youngstown Board of Education Treasurer James Reinhard said. Advances against travel were granted to former school board president Lock Beachum for many trips, even though he still turned in receipts for baggage, meals and other small expenses. This goes against practice for most school boards, officials said.

The treasurer thinks the advances were made because the school expected money back from the National School Boards Association. While Beachum returned amounts to the school board each time, Reinhard said the practice can create an accounting nightmare.

“I don’t think that’s a real good practice,” Reinhard said.

27 First News tried to contact  Beachum, but he did not return our messages.

We compared Youngstown’s expenses to those in Austintown and Warren. Both have similar student enrollments to Youngstown, but Warren has even more of its students living in poverty.

Warren’s school board spends about $20,000 every year for not just travel, but professional memberships and special events for students. While they have belonged to the National School Board Association in the past, the nearly $10,000 membership fees turned off board members.

Austintown does not belong to the national organization and has no plan to join.

“First off it’s a big expense. Second, the meetings are a distance away and that’s an additional expense. We have everything we need right here with the Ohio School Boards,” said Austintown Board of Education member Dr. David Ritchey.

So after going through dozens of documents and adding up the bills, we found the Youngstown school board spent more than $36,000 on just nine trips from October 2011 to December 2012.

That’s more than a first year teacher in the district makes right now. That new teacher in your child’s classroom is paid just less than $30,000 a year.

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