$16,400 per student on education – that’s more than 44 other states. Our latest investigation at OpenTheBooks.com shed some light on why it costs taxpayers so much to educate a child in Wyoming.
During calendar year 2017, the second largest school district in Wyoming, the Natrona County School District in Casper, racked up $9.6 million in credit card expenditures. School officials charged off nearly 28,000 individual transactions, averaging 76 charges per day for $27,400.
These expenditures weren’t just for pencils and crayons. Natrona County school officials spent hundreds of taxpayer dollars at establishments such as the local Dr. Fermento Beer and Winemaking Shop, the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in Missouri, the Dollywood Amusement Park in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Elitch’s amusement park in Denver, Colorado.
The district’s financial records show categorized expenditures on ‘travel’ ($622,473), ‘entertainment’ ($638,052), ‘recreation’ ($445,682), ‘dining-out’ ($287,698), and ‘charitable giving’ ($96,900).
More troubling is the fact that the details of these credit card transactions were not disclosed to citizens, students, journalists, or the elected members of the school board. Instead, the expenditures were aggregated under the name of the credit card company or vendor name (i.e. Amazon), thus, hiding the purpose. Now, for the first time, all stakeholders can download
the line-by-line transactions from our website at OpenTheBooks.com.
Dining Out: $287,698
The district patronized 457 restaurants last year, ranging from Adam’s Mystery Playhouse ($1,755), to Krispy Kreme ($6,195), to Olive Garden ($8,825).
Often, school officials opted for a steak dinner at Altitude Chophouse ($1,621), The Prime Rib Restaurant ($1,250), FireRock Steakhouse ($981), Coyote Creek Steakhouse ($471), or Wyoming Rib and Chop House ($374).
Bars and breweries benefited from the gravy train: The Hangar ($1,020), Minervas Restaurant & Bar in Rapid City, South Dakota ($589) Humphreys Bar & Grill ($557), J’s Pub and Grill ($525), Invasion Bar and Restaurant ($521), Bitter Creek Brewing ($483), Crazy Tony’s Bar & Grill ($441), Santa Fe SW Grill ($405), and Wyoming Ale Works ($138).
On the taxpayer dime, school officials dined at restaurants across the board, including Ruby Tuesday’s ($2,049), The Breadboard ($2,070), Pasta Veloce ($1,274), Bubba’s BBQ ($966), Café Rio in Rock Springs ($885), Perkins Sheridan ($776), Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant ($729), The Merry Piglets in Jackson Hole ($607), Three Crowns Golf Club ($581), Pho Saigon Basil in Lakewood, CO ($467), Applebee’s ($426), The Black Bear Café ($441), Sushi Zensai ($396), Elmer’s Restaurant in Pocatello, ID ($388), Peaches Family Restaurant ($345), Shki Japanese Restaurant ($345), Pappadeaux Seaford ($339), and many more.
Natrona County schools spent $162,611 on airfare last year. United Airlines got most of the business ($102,809), followed by Delta ($42,387) and Southwest ($8,765). The district paid nearly $400,000 in hotel, resort, and travel agency charges; and $20,00 in car and bus rental, Uber, and other transportation fees. In total, the district paid $622,473 to 373 travel vendors in just one year.
The district paid posh hotel expenses around the country, including the upscale Antler Inn in Jackson Hole, WY ($9,896); Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, TN ($1,602); and the Beartooth Hideaway Inn in Red Lodge, MT ($2,640). The district spent $3,480 at the Venetian Palazzo Room in Las Vegas, NV – one of Architectural Digest’s "10 incredible hotels" – and paid another $1,500 for rooms at Caesar’s Palace.
Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on Marriott hotels ($44,302) in places like Atlanta, GA; Denver, CO; Philadelphia, PA; Milwaukee, WI; Nashville, TN; St. Louis, MO; Salt Lake, UT; and Minneapolis, MN. The Hyatt reaped $22,341 from locations such as Chicago, IL; Greenville, SC; Denver, CO; Bellevue, WA; New Orleans, LA; Minneapolis, MN; Washington DC; Jackson, CO; Aurora, CO; Orange County, CA; and Phoenix, AZ. Another $16,009 was spent with Hilton Hotels in destinations such as Anchorage, AK; San Diego, CA; and more.
Someone even booked a $2,733 ‘Funjet Vacation’ using the district credit card. Another purchased $437 in products at "Duty Free Americas."
Entertainment and Recreation: $1.08 Million
The district spent $317,240 at Amazon last year and classified the purchases as ‘entertainment’ on the accounting ledger. We assume these transactions purchased books, but there are no details available. Additionally, the schools spent $10,247 at iTunes.com then classified the transactions as ‘recreation.’ It’s a tremendous amount of money, considering songs at iTunes cost 99 cents and movies cost less than $20 each.
In total, the district paid 132 vendors for ‘entertainment’ purchases, including Hobby Lobby ($22,400), Bullwhip Sausage ($5,242), Music Theatre International ($7,400), Mardi Gras Costumes ($3,984), Arrowhead Catering ($3,723), Studio City Mesa ($3,576), and $1,500 worth of purchases at Toys "R" Us, Babies "R" Us, and other toy retailers. The district even billed off $1,400 on the JH Culinary Conference, in Jackson Hole, WY, as an ‘entertainment’ expense.
Natrona County schools paid 152 vendors for ‘recreation’ purchases. Some of the largest credit card payments went to Bush-Wells Sporting Goods ($157,434), Hill Music Company ($63,536), Gopher Sport ($54,460), and B&H Photo Moto ($16,765).
Other ‘recreation’ vendors included Stalkup’s RV Superstore ($4,000), Jump Craze trampoline ($3,581), mypetchicken.com ($3,394), Snowy Range Ski Area ($2,457), Casper County Country Club ($2,200), Rock Gym ($1,690), Wyoming Fly Fishing ($1,350), Lifetime Fitness ($1,189), Boondock’s Fun Center ($1,134), Boulder Nordic Sports ($1,086), Caliber Fitness ($1,080), Brute Force Training ($983), and Three Rivers Golf Club ($771).
There were plenty of ‘miscellaneous’ expenditures, too. For example, the district spent $12,557 on fresh flowers last year – mostly from Nate’s Flowers & Gifts ($9,787).
This Wyoming school district seems to have a spending problem. We’ve asked school officials for context, comment, and feedback. We hope they’ll demonstrate a legitimate public purpose and will update the piece with their comments, if any. Regardless, taxpayers have the right to know and to decide whether the spending is appropriate.
In the meantime, Natrona County schools could use a good forensic audit. It’s time to follow the money and taxpayers should demand it.
District officials called a press conference on Saturday, August 18th to provide additional details to our reporting. For example: expenditures at iTunes purchased educational apps (we'll link to a detailed accounting when it is provided); Venetian, Las Vegas hotel expenses were for a conference regarding the disbursement of Title I federal funds for the school lunch program for economically disadvantaged students; and the Funjet Vacation expenditure is the official name of a travel agency. The superintendent stated that "We appreciate the scrutiny the [Forbes] article brought to us and caused us to look in the mirror." The district will review all dining and travel policies immediately and welcomes citizen feedback. Credit card access is provided to 1,400 of 2,500 district employees. Stay tuned for additional information regarding this developing story. Read
the reporting of the Casper Star-Tribune.