FOX 29 Investigates Trenton School District Spending

FOX 29 Investigates Trenton School District Spending

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TRENTON, N.J. -

Tens of thousands of dollars spent on catering and pricey meals out, not to mention millions paid to teachers above and beyond their salaries.

FOX 29 investigative reporter Jeff Cole looks at just what the struggling Trenton School District is paying for.

About 12,000 students attend the struggling Trenton Public School system. Trenton spends about $20,000 yearly per student. That's on average of 2,000 more than nearly all other districts. Yet, the graduation rate for its high schools is just over 48-percent: the worst in New Jersey. In addition, many of its students fail to meet proficiency targets in core subjects like language and math.

So why did the District in January, March and again in April of 2012 spend hundreds of dollars in grant money at the Build-a-Bear Workshop?

Trenton School Administrators would not answer our questions on camera. In fact, they wouldn't answer our questions at all.

They simply wrote general descriptions, like this one about build-a-bear:

"...it allowed early childhood students to "explore winter hibernating among bears as well as physical characteristics..."

And questionable expenditures like these are just the surface.

Three times in 2012, over 2,000 tax dollars were spent to take students to the themed restaurant "Medieval Times."

Trenton wrote the trips would:

"...augment the study of the middle ages..."

"...We feel like there's not been enough scrutiny on where taxpayers dollars are going..." says Kyle Olson.

Kyle Olson is the founder of Education Action Group (EAG), a Michigan based non-profit that says it's nonpartisan and focused on education reform. Olson's group obtained Trenton's spending records under NJ's Open Records Act and gave them to FOX 29.

While EAG's critics argue that the non-profit, funded with millions from unnamed donors, is anti-union, Olson says the group's focus is improving schools and accountability.

"When you have huge amounts of students who are not proficient in reading and math, that's your primary mission, you are failing in that mission, that should be taken care of first," says Olson.

Records show that Trenton spent a half million dollars in legal fees in the 2011-2012 school year for what it said were "general legal matters."

Camden, another struggling District, spent nearly twice that.

The documents obtained by FOX 29 show well over $47,000, nearly all of it in grant funds, were spent on "catering" for parents' nights and awards ceremonies.

However, that spending pales in comparison to the stunning amounts of tax dollars the District is shelling-out to workers for unused sick time: 2.7 million bucks in the 2011-2012 school year.

And there's more.

According to the records, the district's approximately 800 teachers took 9,000 sick days in that same year. Again, Trenton's top school administrators would not answer questions about this spending.

"What should be happening is to make sure kids can read, make sure they can compute, make sure they are prepped for life whether its higher education, the military-- whatever. That's what should be taken care of first," said Olson.

A school official in charge of curriculum did take a look at the figures and wrote she had no knowledge of spending in the 2011-2012 school year. However, she added: "...all spending is to be connected to curriculum and is to support student learning."

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