Thursday, January 8, 2009

SCHOOL DAZE: Are espresso machines a true waste of Chicago school funding?

When it comes to public schools, particularly at the high school level, budgets are a complex issue, complicated by the fact that people rarely agree on what constitutes a waste of taxpayer dollars.

There are those individuals who are convinced that the school budgets could be balanced if only they’d drop the football program and all the dollars that get spent on expensive equipment and field maintenance.

OTHERS WANT TO live their lives in a 19th Century mentality, and view anything aside from textbooks and chalk for the blackboards as a waste of funds.

I still remember the snickering that took place in a high school district in suburban Lansing when the local school received a donation (as in free of charge) of two plasma-screen televisions, which school officials decided to install in the student cafeteria to make it possible for them to watch in-house videos of an educational nature.

That ticked off the old-timers, who just can’t stand the image of students watching a television screen, even if it’s while munching on a sandwich.

But then, there are the more blatant incidents that are harder to justify on any level.

TAKE THE CHICAGO Public Schools, which recently got dinged by its inspector general for a series of espresso machines that were purchased.

Just over $70,000 was spent to buy 30 machines that were intended for use by the culinary arts programs (the modern-day equivalent of home economics, only geared more toward restaurant work rather than work in one’s home kitchen).

In the overall scheme of things, $70,000 is miniscule. And having such machines to teach students learning restaurant work how to make a decent cup of coffee can be a justifiable expense.

But the Chicago Tribune newspaper reported recently that the inspector general discovered a dirty little secret – most of those machines were never used. Twenty-two of them were discovered to be still packed up in the boxes in which they were delivered.

OF THE REST of the machines, one cannot be accounted for, while three others were being used at schools – but not as part of any culinary arts class. They are being used to give faculty at the schools a better quality cup of coffee.

It must be a nice perk if you happen to be an employee of one of those two high schools in Chicago. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to get me too worked up, although it is worth a chuckle.

But what is more outrageous is the way the espresso machines were purchased.

It turns out that the school district officials who wanted to purchase all the machines put the paperwork together for the order so that it appeared to be separate purchases from 21 different schools.

THAT MEANT THE total amount of each order was so small that the purchases could just be made.

There were none of the requirements applied that would have called for competitive bidding, and that a purchase be made from whoever could provide the espresso machine at the lowest cost to the school district.

While a school district inspector general exists to root out details and present things in a potentially onerous manner, it is significant that the inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools estimates that the total purchase could have been about $12,000 cheaper – had school officials not been so eager to get around the rules requiring competitive bidding.

Now $12,000 might not be a lot of money – it wouldn’t pay the salary of a single teacher (not even in the lowest-budget of rural Illinois school districts). But it could have covered the cost of a few more textbooks, or perhaps a dozen more computers that could have been installed in some high school’s computer laboratory.

CONSIDERING THAT THE focus of many education programs these days is incorporating computers and technology into the learning experience so as to make students feel comfortable with using these confounding machines, it becomes a significant example of waste.

It certainly is more significant an example than those people who want to complain because a high school is letting its students watch a little television during their downtime.


EDITOR’S NOTES: The espresso machine “caper” was one of 1,012 instances of alleged waste (,0,6818226.story) investigated by the Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general’s office during the 2007-08 school year.

The televisions received by T.F. South High School in suburban Lansing may have been ( donations, but they still managed to offend many of the people who get worked up over issues related to budgetary waste.

1 comment:

Hall Monitor said...

This story made ! Check it out for all the crazy headlines from our schools.