Colorado Education Board can live lavishly, report shows |

Colorado Education Board can live lavishly, report shows

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Members of the state Board of Education often live lavishly when they’re on the public tab, charging taxpayers for expensive meals, themed catering and valet parking, according to expense accounts obtained by The Associated Press.

For a 2006 board meeting in Telluride, the elected eight-member panel took 17 state employees, including themselves, and 11 others to a dinner at Allred’s Restaurant. The bill: $2,028, plus a $305 tip.

On the menu: 17 plates of prime rib, 28 salads for $252, and $135 worth of rhubarb pie. That didn’t include a $200 room charge for the dinner. The gathering was part of the board’s mandate to meet in outlying areas of the state to understand local officials’ problems and issues.

Individual receipts and expense account records obtained by the AP under the Colorado Open Records Act for the past year and a half showed board members spared few expenses when they were in Denver for their monthly meetings ” or away on board business.

The board often ordered catered breakfasts and lunches from Denver’s Pour la France Catering Inc. that bore such themes as “Le Quiche,” ”Laredo Barbecue” and “Boneless Herb Chix,” costing up to $300 per meal to feed its eight members.

According to board records, members spent as much as $60,000 on individual expenses in the past fiscal year, including nearly $26,000 by chairwoman Pamela Jo Suckla. Evie Hudak claimed $11,316, according to the records obtained by the AP.

Peggy Littleton claimed $10,025, Randy DeHoff $5,970, Karen Middleton $4,013, Jared Polis $997 and Elaine Gantz Berman $763. Bob Schaffer claimed $521.

Board members even bill taxpayers for their snacks, including Cheetos, trail mix, candy bars and Goldfish, the accounts show.

Their spending has upset lawmakers, who point out they themselves meet nearly every weekday when they’re in session and don’t get catered meals.

“This is outrageous. This is taxpayer money, and there is no control,” said Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, after learning of the board’s spending habits.

Johnson, a member of the Joint Budget Committee that approves the board’s budget, asked auditors to look at five years’ worth of records. But Mark Stevens, spokesman for the Department of Education, which maintains the records, said it’s difficult to determine how much individual board members spent in previous years because the expense accounts and receipts were filed by date and not by name.

Stevens said members of the public who want to examine expense records would need to pay to have them copied and redacted because board members used their Social Security numbers ” which would have to be deleted ” to identify the records.

Stevens said the board’s accountants included Social Security numbers on the expense accounts for tax purposes.

Members of the Colorado State Board of Education are charged by the Colorado Constitution with the general supervision of public schools. They have numerous powers and duties specified in state law, including licensing teachers. Individuals are elected on a partisan basis to serve six-year terms without pay and do not receive a per-diem ” only reimbursement for “necessary expenses.”

The number of board members varies, depending on the number of congressional seats awarded during census years.

Middleton, who is now a state representative, said the Telluride event was an appreciation dinner for the local school district.

She said the board cut back on catering several years ago because it was getting too expensive. The board now only provides food for board members instead of everyone who attends board meetings, she said.

Middleton, who worked in publishing before getting elected, said employment options for board members are limited because of potential conflicts of interest. She said many qualified people avoid running for the office because they can’t afford it.

“We don’t want to only have board members who are wealthy,” she said.

Hudak said the audit requested by Johnson, which is expected to be released later this year, is appropriate and she believes board members can justify their expenses.

“These are necessary expenses for us to be representatives of the state,” she said.

Suckla said her expenses were higher than other members’ because she has to commute 385 miles at least once a month from her home in Slickrock on the Western Slope, rent cars and stay in hotels, while other board members live along the Front Range.

She said members have to stay at hotels like the tony Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs because that’s where educational conferences are held.

According to expense records, Suckla paid $60 for valet parking while staying at the Broadmoor for a conference held by the Colorado Association of School Boards in November 2006. The three nights she spent at the hotel cost $645.

Suckla also took two state employees who work in a department analyzing statewide school data out to dinner at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel in November 2006, paying $160 with a $28 tip for filet mignon and New York strip steaks. She also billed taxpayers $3.50 for Picture Show Popcorn, which she billed as lunch.

Dave Grier, controller for the Department of Education, told board members in an Aug. 27 memo after Dwight Jones took over as education commissioner that board members could be reimbursed “for any necessary expenses” in performing their duties.

Nonreimbursable expenses include alcoholic beverages, entertainment, personal hygiene, travel insurance, traffic fines, parking tickets, political expenses, magazines and newspapers.

The department does not require itemized restaurant receipts, but board members are required to sign a reimbursement form swearing they did not spend money on prohibited items.

Grier also warned in his memo that “board members should be aware that all of these payments and the supporting documentation are considered public records and are available for inspection by any person.”

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