News Story

Detroit School’s Response On Costly Travel Expenses Raise More Questions

The Detroit Public Schools Community District sent 34 of its employees to a Los Angeles conference in 2018 at a cost of $127,409, according to information it released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The district’s own website had reported the conference cost at $286,596, or twice that amount. But in a Jan. 9 communication, district officials reported that this figure referred to the amount the school board had approved for the trip, not the costs that were actually incurred.

The conference was from Jan. 28, 2018, through Feb. 2, 2018.

The district provided a breakdown of expenses for the 34 employees, which showed:

$1,295 for parking, luggage and mileage.

$73,500 for conference registration.

$9,792 for meals.

$840 for ground transportation.

$16,877 for airfare.

$25,104 for hotels.

Total expenses: $127,409

The school district has also disclosed that $240,000 in spending was authorized for another Los Angeles conference — held in 2019 — plus $250,000 more to send staff members to Italy that year. It’s not clear whether those expenses were actually incurred, and Michigan Capitol Confidential has requested more details from the district about those trips.

The school district’s statement that $286,596 represents the amount authorized, not spent on the 2018 conference raises additional questions about its financial reporting. Districts are required by state law to post their expenses on their websites.

While the cost figures reported for some trips show round numbers (such as the $250,000 trip to Italy), others are reported with far more precision. For example, one page showed a figure of $250,000 and also an expenditure of $10,648.22 for a May 18, 2017, trip to an International Baccalaureate event in Atlanta.

Elsewhere, expenses of $12,355.24 were reported for a Jan. 18, 2018, board of education retreat to San Antonio, Texas.

After the district received the original Freedom of Information Act request seeking this information, it took 81 days for it to get a response to Michigan Capitol Confidential. This included 38 days between the date the district received payment for the information and its final delivery on Jan. 9. (Government offices are allowed to charge for staff time and other expenses involved in responding to open-records requests.)

The Detroit Public Schools Community District acknowledged receiving the FOIA request on Oct. 21, 2019. Government entities are permitted up to 15 business days to respond to a document request, which meant the district had until Nov. 12, 2019, to reply.

The school district did acknowledge in a Dec. 2 email that it had received a check from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy for the requested documents.

Michigan Capitol Confidential sent an email to a district spokesperson on Dec. 16 and another on Dec. 20, requesting the status of its requests. The district acknowledged receiving them but did not provide any updates on when information that had been paid for 18 days earlier would be forthcoming.

On Dec. 23, Michigan Capitol Confidential published a story reporting the $286,596 amount the district now says was authorized but not actually spent on the 2018 Los Angeles conference. The story described the difficulty in getting more details from the school district.

In the two months between first requesting details on the 2018 trip and publishing its Dec. 23 article, Michigan Capitol Confidential did not write about the matter.

The publication’s Dec. 23 article was published because the state law is silent about how long a government entity has before it must provide documents after the requestor has paid the amount it specifies.

The law states that a government entity must send the promised information, but it places no limit on how long it can take to do so.

Michigan Capitol Confidential had intended to hold off on reporting on these matters until it had received the requested documents. But 21 days after the district cashed the check, it still had not sent the documents. It also did not provide a substantive response to requests for a delivery date, and Michigan Capitol Confidential then published a story reporting the figures the district had previously posted.

Two weeks later, Michigan Capitol Confidential received the information, along with a complaint from the school district:

“Once again your latest article sensationalizes a legitimate district investment and misrepresents facts,” the school district stated in its FOIA response. “The cost of the conference was ~$127k, not the amount approved by the FRC or School Board. This was the high-level estimated amount.”

The district’s full response includes the following: “[W]e are proud of our investment and it has provided a clear return on investment, which is reflected in our improvement in student achievement. As you well know and supported, Emergency Management failed due to the disinvestment in employee development, namely teachers. Emergency Management did not prepare teachers for the shift to Common Core. This included little to no evidence of training on the new standards or selection of curriculum that aligned to the standards. In 2017, district curriculum staff and school level teachers attended the conference to receive top quality exposure and training on the standards and were exposed to top quality curriculum. This level of training and exposure was not available locally or in Michigan. The state sub par performance since the adoption of Common Core speaks to the low quality of at-scale training. Participants have since led process and system changes in district wide curriculum adoption, curriculum development, and professional development.”