This article originally appeared on watchdog.org.
PITTSBURGH — Taxpayers in the West Mifflin Area School District were told a property tax increase was necessary to cover a budget shortfall.
But after taxes went up, it was discovered that district employees were blowing through thousands of dollars buying expensive meals on district-issued credit cards.
Nicholas Alexandroff, a former member of the school board, says he uncovered the questionable spending after getting an inside tip and filing a right-to-know request with the district.
What Alexandroff found became the basis for KDKA TV’s investigative report (alsohere) that district employees were spending thousands on meals on district-issued credit cards, even though the district had just raised property taxes in 2014 to cover a $1.8 million budget deficit for 2014-2015.
The district has issued 43 credit cards to district employees that include maintenance workers, teachers and administrators. Alexandroff said the cards had been used for six or seven years.
KDKA reported that, just in the past year, Superintendent Daniel Castagna charged the district $2,570 for meals.
Additionally, one employee apparently spent $49 on a district credit card at a local beer distributor, which sells only beer, cigars and ice.
Last year’s board president and current board member Judy Andzelik told the Post-Gazette the school board has an unofficial policy that allows administrators to charge the district for meals if they have to stay late for meetings or school events, instead of filing for reimbursement for mileage.
Andzelik said she would ask the board to formalize the policy at the next meeting.
Alexandroff, who served on the West Mifflin Area School District school board from 2009 to 2013, objects to the policy generally, even if it’s formalized. He said some administrators make six-figure salaries, and the district shouldn’t pay for their meals. If employees have district-related expenses, they should file detailed expense reports, he said.
In 2011, Castagna was appointed superintendent with a starting salary of $125,900 and a five-year contract. Mark Hoover was also appointed assistant superintendent in 2011, with a starting salary of $115,000 and a five-year contract.
Alexandroff also said the policy is inappropriate in light of the district having raised property taxes last year. The district’s 4.15-mill increase — the highest in Allegheny County, while half the districts didn’t raise rates — “translates to a $243 tax increase for a median value home in that district,” the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
For some employees, like maintenance workers for example, it would make sense to have open accounts at places like Home Depot, Alexandroff said. But he feels the credit-card policy just leads to waste.
While Andzelik told the Post-Gazette, “We see those statements every month,” Alexandroff said he never saw them in his four years on the board. He might have seen a bill “here or there,” but nothing that showed wider credit-card use.
Nakama Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar, in Pittsburgh, was one of the venues visited by district employees. The average dinner entrée there is $30. It’s also 10 miles and nearly a half an hour from the school district.
Alexandroff said his path to getting the paperwork wasn’t a smooth one. He said a district administrator tried to dissuade him from his information request — saying it was a foot and a half of paper — even though that person isn’t the district’s right-to-know officer.
Alexandroff said he got ominous anonymous text messages, saying he was “going to have to atone for (his) sins, for the problems (he’d) caused” or calling him a liar, “a filthy rat.”
KDKA’s Facebook post on its report drew mostly ire, with 144 shares and 128 comments.
This isn’t the first time this district has faced questions about spending on meals. In 2011, the Post-Gazette reported on thousands of dollars in meal reimbursements to former superintendent Patrick Risha, including his largest meal reimbursement check, for $1,511.20. The district had also spent almost $10,000 on pizza deliveries to district offices and schools from September 2007 to January 2010.
Andzelik, current board president Daniel McDonald and Castagna didn’t return calls for comment. District business manager Dennis Cmar took questions by email, but didn’t respond in time for this report.