DENVER (CBS4)– Despite crushing budget cuts to K-12 public education in Colorado including teachers being laid off, schools being closed and programs being cut, Colorado school board members are still attending annual meetings at some of the state’s ritziest luxury hotels, the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver.
“Every year we get questions about why we go to the Broadmoor,” said Ken Delay, President of the Colorado Association of School Boards, which puts on the annual conferences.
But those questions have not stopped CASB from continuing to schedule its conferences at the luxurious resorts, which CASB says offers competitive rates.
CASB is essentially funded by local school districts which pay dues to the organization.
“I would say we’re supported by public dollars,” said Delay.
CBS4 found many of those public dollars paying some eye-opening expenses. For the four-day Broadmoor conference which was held in December 2011 and attended by about 1,000 local school board members and their staffs, CASB staff members routinely racked up pricey room service bills.
One staff member charged $30 for a room service hamburger. Another charged $48.19 for a room service delivery of a plate of chicken and a glass of milk. Still another staff member submitted a room service bill for a single $30 mahi sandwich.
“I mean the Broadmoor is the Broadmoor,” said Delay when asked about the meal expenses being passed through to taxpayers.
“The public ends up paying 30 bucks for a hamburger?” asked 4 On Your Side Investigator Brian Maass.
“That is the going rate at the Broadmoor,” said Delay.
When CASB fed 19 of its staff members lunch at the Broadmoor, the tab came out to $1,217.69 or $64 per person for lunch. Breakfast a couple of days later for 22 CASB staff members ran up a
$1,439.54 tab- that’s $65.43 per person for breakfast.
Some of the bills reviewed by CBS4 were high because CASB allows its staff members to bring spouses and children to the Broadmoor conference with the organization paying for spouse meals.
“It’s a decision I’ve made that that’s a fair additional compensation piece because of the extra time, work and effort to put on a great conference for our members,” said Delay. “I made a call several years ago that it’s not inappropriate if you want to bring your spouse to this conference.”
So the public paid $42.30 for a CASB staff member and her husband to have a room service breakfast of double eggs Benedict and a single glass of juice. Another dinner bill for the pair came to $170 including a $38 plate of prime rib.
Why choose the Broadmoor and its top shelf prices?
Delay maintains the luxury resort is one of the only places in the state that can accommodate a conference for 1,000 people in December.
“We’re confident the Broadmoor is the best place and the best price for this kind of conference. And the price and the deal is as good as we’re going to get anywhere. For all our needs, I don’t think we can get a better deal. We have to put it on at a place that accommodates everything we do,” said Delay.
“But you’ve also got to put it on at a place where a thousand people want to come?” asked Maass.
“We do,” said Delay. “Obviously we’re not going to put it on in Trinidad.”
“Whats wrong with Trinidad?” asked Maass.
“Because 1,000 people won’t come to Trinidad,” said Delay, who went on to say Trinidad doesn’t have the facilities to put on a conference for 1,000 people.
Broadmoor rooms for most school board members and staff ended up costing between $180 and $210 per night after taxes, fees and the $16 per night parking charge.
The Brush School District sent nine members to the Broadmoor convention spending $10,791.08. Brush sent six board members, a secretary, superintendent and its food services director.
Same with the Durango school district. Nine members attended the convention costing $11,438.23.
The Littleton School District sent 11 people including five board members, three of whom brought their spouses. The district, which has undergone severe budget cuts, also sent two assistant superintendents, its Chief Information Officer and two secretaries for a total cost to the district of $9,743.44.
“The LPS community places a high priority on training for Board of Education members,” said Diane Leiker, director of communications for Littleton schools.
She noted that board members are volunteers who set policy for a quarter billion dollar budget, 15,000 students and more than 1,600 employees.
“Training is important. It is far less expensive to go to a concentrated series of training sessions here in Colorado than it is to go out of state to these kinds of training sessions individually,” explained Leiker.
The Littleton district also paid CASB $14,397 in dues for 2011.
CBS4 questioned why Littleton taxpayers picked up the entire tab for a $715.94 dinner at the Broadmoor’s Charles Court restaurant for the Littleton delegation and their spouses, including a $44 lamb dinner and $38 fish entree. But after CBS4 began asking questions, Littleton school board members who brought their spouses all reimbursed the district for spouse meal expenses.
“I just paid the district back today for that,” said one school board member, when she was approached by CBS4, several months after the conference.
Some school boards now believe that attending conferences at luxury resorts during fiscally challenging times is no longer a sound idea.
“We have to make the best decisions about how to use that money,” said Denver School Board President Mary Seawell, who skipped last December’s Broadmoor conference.
“Anytime we are having big cuts as a school district, the perception of being at the Broadmoor, even if it’s a great rate, impacts that decision, absolutely. This year… isn’t the right year,” said Seawell.
Aside from answering some prickly questions from the media, there’s not much impetus for CASB to move the conference to a less expensive venue. Records show that for 2011, CASB made about $103,605 in profit from the Broadmoor event. Ken Delay says the conference has turned about a $100,000 profit for the organization for the last two years.
A former board member in the Greeley school district, Brett Reese, said he believes the Broadmoor convention sends ‘the wrong message’ at a time when districts are struggling. Reese suggested the convention could be held at a Denver area high school over a weekend, and delegates could stay at budget motels to save money.
“This way we are being wise and frugal with the taxpayers money,” said Reese.
Delay scoffs at the idea saying its unworkable. But he adds that CASB is reexamining the Broadmoor conference to make sure it’s the most cost efficient option.
“We should be sure this is the best place to be. So it just seems like it’s a smart thing to do right now. These are tough times let’s make sure it really is the best price,” said Delay.
Although the education conference is booked at the Broadmoor through 2015, Delay said his organization is going to seek out other bids to make sure school districts are not overpaying for the conference experience.
CBS4 also questioned why the education organization is holding its annual two day winter convention at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel, a landmark property that boasts it has hosted kings, presidents and rock stars.
CASB says 141 school board members attended the February 16 and 17 event, although the organization refused to release a list of school districts and participants.
“With the Brown Palace,” said Delay,”it’s really a proximity to the Capitol issue.”
The winter legislative conference is aimed at getting school board members together with state lawmakers.
But a quick check by CBS4 of the website hotels.com for the same conference dates in February 2013 showed numerous other hotels as near to the state capitol as the Brown Palace, many with rooms costing far less than the Brown.
For February 2013, the Brown Palace, 1/3 of a mile from the Capitol, lists rates of $179 per night. A downtown Sheraton hotel, even closer to the Capitol, offers rates of $115 per night, the Warwick Hotel, also a third of a mile from the Capitol, has rooms for $109 per night
“Could we go somewhere other than the Brown Palace, sure,” said Delay.
“Less expensive?” asked Maass.
“Maybe,” responded Delay. “And we might look at that one as well.”
– Written by Brian Maass for CBSDenver.com