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Dixon starts off by cutting back on food and travel; Superintendent asks school officials to watch expenses

During her first week as interim superintendent, Amber M. Dixon let central office administrators know the time had come for them to start cutting costs.

Specifically, during Dixon's first day on the job, she sent out a memo indicating that out-of-state travel would pretty much be a thing of the past.

A few days later, she sent out a memo telling administrators to stop buying food for staff meetings.

And she spread the word that administrators should not be helping themselves -- as some regularly do -- to the buffet that the School Board orders for itself every Wednesday evening when it meets.

"It's not business as usual in our schools -- it shouldn't be business as usual in our offices," she said. "I want to ensure district funds are first and foremost supporting our schools."

How much of a difference will Dixon's changes make to the district's bottom line?

It's hard to say for sure.

In the 2010-11 school year, the district spent $575,028 on "professional learning opportunities" and conferences -- with more than two-thirds of that amount funded through grants, rather than the district's general operating budget, according to Barbara J. Smith, the district's chief financial officer.

Dixon told administrators that no out-of-state travel will be allowed unless it has already been approved or is necessary under the terms of a particular grant.

That $575,028 figure includes airfare, hotels and meals for trainings and conferences, along with conference fees, Smith said -- for in-state travel, as well as out-of-state travel. She could not provide a specific breakdown indicating how much of that money is spent on travel out of New York, but she did offer a general sense.

"The majority of the grant funds travel [$422,827] is outside of New York, due to the types of trainings and meetings they attend," Smith said.

Conferences have become increasingly common in education in recent years -- and former Superintendent James A. Williams and former Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele encouraged their staff to travel.

In a recent 12-month period, staff destinations included Albany; Dallas; Washington; Chicago; Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; Minneapolis; Omaha, Neb.; Phoenix; New Orleans; and Salt Lake City.

But some in the district question the number of people that are sent to events.

For instance, 24 principals, assistant principals, clerical staff and central office administrators flew to San Antonio in January for a conference on how building administrators can use their time more efficiently, according to district credit card bills obtained by The Buffalo News under the Freedom of Information Law.

The district spent about $480 on airfare for most of the participants, for a total of $11,325 to get all 24 of them to Texas and back. That does not include conference fees, hotel rooms or food.

On another trip, in June 2010, a group of building administrators, with Oladele, attended leadership training on the Harvard Campus. The Harvard Square Hotel bill for the trip ran $15,108.

Travel is not the only thing that blossomed in the Buffalo Public Schools in recent years.

So did food at staff meetings.

"It's constant trainings, and there is always food involved," one district employee said.

Taxpayers in 2010-11 spent $95,557 on meeting expenses.

"You should note that meeting expenses can be for student and parent activities and awards dinners, as well as staff meetings," Smith said. There is no way to readily separate expenses for staff meetings from other meetings, she said.

Food for events with students or parents is acceptable, under Dixon's directive, but food at staff meetings is not.

"If you're meeting with staff from 4 to 6 [p.m.], you can provide cookies. But I'm asking staff not to do that any more," Dixon said.

She asked staff to scrutinize purchase orders to make sure they are "necessary and prudent."

The state Comptroller's Office has in recent years cited several school districts for serving meals at meetings.

"In general, meals and refreshments should only be provided at meetings if officers or employees are conducting school business and cannot take time off to eat," the comptroller noted in a recent audit of a Monroe County school district.

The comptroller suggests that districts approve food expenditures ahead of time -- something Smith says Buffalo does -- and record details.

"The policy should require that officials formally document who attends each meeting or event and why incurring the cost of the meals or refreshments was necessary to conduct district business," the comptroller wrote.

In addition to money that district administrators spent on food for meetings, the School Board spent $21,459 in 2010-11 on food for its own Wednesday night meetings.

"If the board wants to have food, that's their decision," Dixon said. "I'm asking staff not to eat in the boardroom on meeting nights."

In recent years, board members dined most frequently on food prepared by Joyce Livingston, a local caterer. Some weeks, the board orders out from various local restaurants, such as Wah Sing, a Chinese restaurant on the West Side; Dough Bois Pizza, a stone's throw from City Hall; and Chris' New York Sandwich Company on Delaware Avenue.

Taxpayers spend $200 to $300 in a typical week for the meal itself, plus about $100 a week more in drinks and snacks for the boardroom, a Buffalo News review of district records found.

Certain staff members routinely help themselves to the weekly spread -- and some even take doggie bags home with leftovers.

That practice is going to end, Dixon says.

"I think it's necessary," she said.