Monday, June 8, 2009 | While schools froze their spending to survive a bruising budget crisis, San Diego Unified spent more than $2,000 in federal money for disadvantaged students to send Superintendent Terry Grier to a conference in Washington, D.C., including more than $550 for meals for Grier and other school district staff and trustees.
Staffers said the costs were reasonable and credited the March conference and lobbying with helping to steer stimulus money to San Diego schools. But Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris, who approved the spending, now says charging the federal fund for the expenses was inappropriate and vowed to correct it when it was brought to his attention by voiceofsandiego.org late last week. Using the money to pay for Grier may have also violated federal rules that bar the funds from being used for lobbying.
“I screwed it up. I shouldn’t have done that,” Morris said. He had believed that the whole conference was related to the federal money for disadvantaged students, he said, and was therefore an allowable expense for Grier. The money will now be charged to the Office of the Superintendent.
The erroneous costs included dinner at a Georgetown restaurant, where Grier picked up the tab for himself and other school district staffers and trustees. The dinners ran more than $57 per person and included two plates of venison ($29 per entree), two orders of striped bass ($28 each) and two orders of a gourmet beef called wagyu ($32 each), according to expense reports and receipts obtained by voiceofsandiego.org through a California Public Records Act request.
Elsewhere during the conference, Grier ordered up a $23 order of barbecue ribs for himself, spent nearly $50 for a late dinner of soup, fish and cake, and bought $84.16 worth of breakfast for himself, two school board members and the San Diego Unified spokesman from a hotel restaurant at the same time that the conference provided a free continental breakfast on its first floor. The superintendent said he could not recall why he did not attend the free breakfast.
Grier, who said he was not aware of the “mix-up” that resulted in the federal money being used for his costs, argued that the expenses were reasonable for dining in the capital and that he had not “gouged anyone.” School district spokesman Bernie Rhinerson said that Grier and other officials gained valuable networking along with their meals with school district officials from across the country.