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Local school board members spend nights in local hotels

by Craig Cheatham

KMOV.com

Posted on October 21, 2010 at 5:38 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 21 at 10:30 PM

(KMOV) -- The Jennings School District is failing most of the standards set by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Last year, the Missouri State Auditor released a scathing audit of the district and its board, finding a dramatic increase in adminstrative salaries, mismanaged projects, poor record keeping, multi-million dollar budget shortfalls, and general systemic failure on a variety of issues. Needless to say, the Jennings District has major problems and is struggling to avoid losing its accreditation.

Our story focused on the school board's direct expenses. That's the money that comes from a budget controlled by the board, which goes for basically anything the board wants to buy. We focused on the two most recent fiscal years; 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. During that time, the board spent $123,000, including $71,000 on training and travel for professional development, both out-of-state and local conferences. The records indicate that the board paid for some administrators to attend conferences, but it's unclear how much was spent on non-board members.

The records we got from the Jennings School District revealed that a total of seven board members spent the night at two different local hotels this year. Six members spent the night at the Westport Doubletree Hotel during a retreat in January, even though the hotel is just over a twenty minute drive from Jennings. A few months ago, another board member spent the night at the Doubletree in Chesterfield because he supposedly didn't have a ride home. The Chesterfield hotel is about a thirty minute drive from Jennings.

During the last two years, four Jennings board members traveled to Chicago to attend a national conference and a total of thirteen board members out of a possible fourteen attended back to back annual state conventions at the Tan-Tar-A resort on Lake of the Ozarks. How unusual is that? It's not unusual for local school board members to attend their state conventions, but our investigation of two dozen local school boards found that it's rare for a local board to send that many members to a national convention. Only the Cahokia School Board, which spent $35,000 over ten months on trips to Chicago, Las Vegas, Chicago and Phoenix, had expenses in the league of Jennings.

The Cahokia board spent much more on out-of-state trips than Jennings, but Jennings controlled more money in it's own budget. In fact, the amount spent from the Jennings board budget was ten times more than what many local boards spend on themselves. The Jennings board spent $7,870 on the Back to School Jamboree during the last two years. The event is popular with kids, which explains why the struggling district paid a "balloon twister" and a "face Painter" $300 apiece. These kind of events, sponsored by the elected school board, allow board members to take credit for paying for the popular event. In addition, the board spent $6,000 on flowers, apparently most of them were sympathy flowers, and $2,800 on professional photos of themselves. The board also made more than $15,000 in expenses that have vague references like "board expenses" or "replenish petty cash."

Board President Rose Mary Johnson believes the board has been very responsible with taxpayer's money. At a recent board meeting she told me the board could have spent much more. 

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