Four-star hotels, conventions among Dallas ISD travel expenses

The Dallas Morning News
Jun 18, 2011

By MATTHEW HAAG, Staff Writer,

From four-star hotel rooms high above Times Square to luxurious suites overlooking San Diego Bay, Dallas ISD employees have racked up large bills on trips to conferences, conventions and visits to other school districts.

And in some cases, district records show no receipts.

The Dallas school district spent at least $4.7 million on costs related to employee travel, including money to cover expenses, airfare and hotel rooms, from August 2006 to December 2010. The bills range from a $2,495 registration fee for a DISD principal to attend a four-day conference at Harvard University to $500 airfares to Southern California.

Among some other findings:

In July 2010, 17 DISD principals attended a conference in New York City and spent $28,529 on rooms at the Novotel Hotel in New York City’s Times Square. That eight-night stay was the most expensive in DISD over the past four years. Registration for the conference cost $38,150.

Two months earlier, in May 2010, three DISD central office employees stayed in $368-per-night rooms in the four-star Marriott Marquis Hotel overlooking Times Square. The two-night stay cost $2,210.

A Townview Center teacher received a $6,479 cash advance, including $1,224 for tickets to Walt Disney World Resort, in June 2010 for a conference in Orlando, Fla. District records show no receipts.

As Dallas school officials prepare for cuts in state funding, they have proposed slashing employee travel by 50 percent. DISD decided against sending principals this summer back to New York City for the principals’ conference.

“Hindsight is perfect,” district spokesman Jon Dahlander said in an email. “During July 2010, there was little indication that the state would face the massive shortfall that it is currently experiencing.”

Interim Superintendent Alan King said he informed staffers earlier this year that travel budgets would be reduced.

Steve Korby, the district’s executive director of financial services, added: “There is not much need to send them to Las Vegas [for example] when they can go to Austin or Fort Worth.”

The district requires copies of airplane tickets, hotel bills and taxi receipts for employees to get reimbursed for some travel expenses.

But DISD employees appear to have more leeway in receiving per diem, a daily allowance for out-of-town meals. The district has spent $608,441 on per diem from August 2006 to December 2010.

As is common for other government entities and companies, the per diem varies based on the location of the trip. It can reach $71 a day for more expensive cities, such New York City and San Francisco.

But the allotment appears to be loosely tracked. Dallas ISD asks employees to reimburse the district for what they do not spend, but has no way of knowing what amount remains because receipts are not required. Korby said the purpose of per diem is that it does not require receipts.

On some requests for per diems and cash advances, DISD employees offered few details. On a $16,000 cash advance request from a principal for a college tour trip, the principal did not indicate where she was going or how many students she was taking. She turned in receipts after the trip and returned the unused funds.

When King was shown that request, he said, “If that’s what you got, then we are changing it. We have to get more accounting on the front end.”

DISD officials did not provide receipts requested by The Dallas Morning News for other instances when employees received cash advances.

Outgoing Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said budget managers monitor expenditures, including travel, from the central office down to the campus level, where principals approve purchases.

“You got to give principals some autonomy as long as they follow all the rules,” he said. “Sometimes whoever is giving them approval may not know everything they’re going to be working on. ”

Urton Anderson, the accounting department chairman at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, said he could not imagine a system set up this way.

“This whole thing is unbelievably fraudulent,” he said. “It’s just free money. I don’t think it’s a good process.”

Trustee Bruce Parrott, who as a board member receives the largest per diem at $75, said the amount was “generous” and usually covered a day’s worth of meals.

Parrott said he sometimes has money left over if he eats a cheap meal, but he said he has never heard of someone reimbursing the district for what wasn’t spent.

“It takes care of any meals or incidentals, such as toothpaste,” said Parrott, who is not paid to serve on the board.

Los Angeles Unified School District does not require receipts for per diem either. But the Fort Worth school district limits per diem to the superintendent, trustees and top department administrators.

And they must turn in receipts, said district spokesman Clint Bond. “Our business office is extremely aggressive about making sure that happens,” he said.

Staff writer Tawnell D. Hobbs contributed to this story.