Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Secret to Great School Budget Stories? Dig, Dig, Dig

A Dallas Independent School District's Citizen Budget Review Commission meeting in 2011. Dallas Morning News reporter Tawnell Hobbs found rampant misspending in an investigation of the district's finances that covered four years of financial records.  (Flickr/Todd Overman for DISD)

News stories on school district budgets often stick to whether spending is up or down, whether employees received raises or not. So Dallas Morning News reporter Tawnell Hobbs helped attendees at the Education Writers Association National Seminar delve deeper into school spending and unlock the juiciest stories during a session in Chicago on April 20.

Hobbs encouraged reporters to request six things from districts each school year: approved and actual budgets, purchase orders, check logs, credit card information, salary and stipend databases, and grants.

Approved budgets are school districts’ estimates of how much they will spend. Actual budgets are how much has already been spent. They offer the basic stories, such as whether spending will change from year to year and whether employees will get raises.

Comparing the actual and approved budgets can help reporters see if a district is over budget or nearly over as the school year progresses, Hobbs said.

She also encouraged reporters to request separation agreements, which specify what payment employees receive after leaving a school district.

“It’s something that we don’t look at a lot,” Hobbs said.

Lucrative Settlements

She reviewed Dallas Independent School District’s separation agreements, finding DISD paid out $570,000 under 11 such agreements over about a two-year period. The resulting article, published in March, led to the school board limiting the superintendent’s power to give lucrative settlement agreements.

Hobbs also extolled the stories hidden in districts’ check registers.

The Morning News began looking at the Dallas district’s check registers in 2011, as the district was eliminating teacher positions and increasing class sizes after state budget cuts.

The newspaper put in “hundreds” of public records requests, going through nearly 800,000 lines of data, she said. Microsoft Access and Excel helped the reporters easily identify hotels and other notable spending.

They found the Dallas school system spent $57 million over four years – equivalent to one year of average base pay for 1,086 teachers – on pricey meals, trips, hotels and more, like reserving a Dallas hotel ballroom for a summer staff meeting that could have been held at an empty school.

“We started really paying attention to that kind of stuff that, obviously, didn’t directly impact student learning,” Hobbs said. “Obviously there were ways to cut.”

After the Dallas Morning News article came out, the district vowed to crack down on luxury spending.

Examining staff credit card purchases also helped spotlight potentially extravagant spending.

Credit card purchases showed employees paid for items like iPods and dating websites with the district’s 1,200 purchase cards. Questionable purchases totaled $20 million over one year, the Morning News found in 2006.

The paper also found many employees purchased gift cards with district credit cards, Hobbs said. The employees could then use the gift cards to purchase whatever they wanted without oversight.

To determine what credit card purchases were on gift cards, the Morning News used the Dallas school district’s method: identify purchases that totaled even numbers, such as $25.00 or $100.00. Exact totals are fishy, Hobbs said.

“Every time you go through checkout and they say, ‘$10,’ you’re like, ‘On the nose? Really?’” Hobbs said. “That doesn’t happen a lot.”

FBI Involvement

The Dallas school system hired an independent law firm to investigate gift card purchases, finding what the Morning News uncovered, Hobbs said. Some district employees were fired, and the FBI even got involved, Hobbs said.

She also encouraged reporters to request databases of employee stipends and salaries.

With the stipend database, Hobbs found Dallas district employees paid $3.7 million annually on 2,300 car allowances in 2005 — when some employees didn’t even drive or only did so sporadically. Employees didn’t have to turn in mileage to receive the stipend, Hobbs said.

Another key question Hobbs encouraged reporters to ask: Did the school district get what it paid for when purchasing outside services?

Hobbs wrote an article last year about a study the district paid $100,000 for that was supposed to examine facilities, budgets, whether the district needed to or close schools and more, Hobbs said. But the resulting report merely said Dallas magnet programs are popular and should be expanded, Hobbs said.

“Something’s not right here,” she recalled thinking.

She pulled up the request for proposal and the contract for the study, which outlined everything the report was supposed to provide. She talked with school district officials, who insisted the report was worth the money.

So Hobbs called the consultant. He admitted he didn’t do $100,000 worth of work, and the district ultimately paid him only $50,000.

“That’s just one example of going back: Did the promised project get delivered?” Hobbs said. “As journalists we always forget to do that. We all know it. We get busy and go on to the next thing. But every now and then, especially if it’s a big report that [district officials] paid money for, see if they got what was promised.”