Students get report cards – and so do districts.
Upper Arlington City Schools has earned an “excellent with distinction” rating from the Ohio Department of Education for 12 years. About 96 percent of students graduate.
Residents kept fueling the stellar results with tax increases – until last year, when the levy failed for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Voters, including George Momirov and Dan McCormick say the “Educate UA” movement, born to fight the levy, opened eyes to post-recession school spending.
They argued that the more residents’ incomes declined, the more administrators and staffers raked in.
“The more you got into it, the more you saw extravagances when measured against the private sector,” Momirov said.
For two months, Watchdog 10 asked for and examinedhundreds of documents for insight into how the district used tax dollars.
In one year’s time, for meals alone, Upper Arlington residents paid for school officials to have working meals locally and on the road. According to receipts, the menus – in the most extravagant cases -- included rack of lamb, filet mignon and shrimp brochette.
We also found receipts from restaurants like Cap City Diner and the Columbus Fish Market for lunches to talk about things like the 2012 levy.
“So the taxpayer is paying them to go to a meeting and enjoy a nice meal, so they can figure out how to get more money from taxpayers,” McCormick said.
Tax dollars also paid for an information session on passing school tax levies.
That information session was in Columbus, but some conferences required long-distance trips.
“People don’t just go wherever they want, they have to send in the appropriate purchase order and justify the expense,” Upper Arlington Superintendent Jeffrey Weaver said.
One trip that got approved was to Seattle for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. That trip cost nearly $5,000.
There also were education trips to Riviera Maya, Mexico, San Diego, Scottsdale, Ariz., Tucson, Ariz., New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Texas, Tampa, Fla., Savannah, Ga., Virginia Beach, Nashville, Washington D.C., and Denver.
“You want your employees to remain on the cutting edge, be exposed to best practices, be exposed to the latest research,“ Weaver said.
The two longtime Upper Arlington residents Watchdog 10 spoke with said they get it.
“I understand the value of continuing education,” McCormick said.
But they raisedtheir eyebrows to what Watchdog 10 found, such as a conference in Napa Valley, Calif.
“It was an urban school superintendent conference. Urban? Ok.” McCormick said.
Superintendent Weaver said that as an Urban Superintendent’s Association of America board member, the conference covered some of his expenses. Tax dollars covered the rest, though.
They also covered a trip to Boston for five board members and an assistant superintendent.
Registration cost nearly $4,500, not including air, hotel and meals, including a lobster dinner.
“I know our board members and administrators are very committed,” Weaver said.
Board of Education President Bob Arkin attended sessions -- even had a high-profile presentation at the conference.
But it wasn’t all work.
Arkin posted baseball pictures on his Facebook page with comments like, “Day 2, looks like Boston showed up.”
The game was on the Saturday afternoon of the conference. It was the Red Sox vs. the Yankees. It started at 4:05 p.m. Arkin’s final conference session didn’t end until 5 p.m. Arkin admitted he left his last session when it was about half way done.
“I did not feel at all bad about getting to Fenway to see the game,” Arkin told Watchdog 10 in a TV. “Someone obtained the ticket for me.”
Some community members said that board and staff members need to think twice about whose money sends them places.
“It’s the taxpayers picking up the tab,” Momirov said. “It’s not their money, and it’s easy to be frivolous with someone else’s money.”
Especially, McCormick says, when you consider the current climate.
After the levy failed, parents learned they would have to pay more for their students to play school sports. The district also cut 30 teaching positions.
Weaver said the belt likely will tighten around out-of-state travel, too.
“I think the district loses exposure to new ideas, but you have to be more creative with the Internet, with communicating with districts at local levels,” Weaver said.
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