Stopping Wasteful Spending: Better Latte Than Never

Working in Washington, D.C. for the last decade, I’ve become familiar with the experience of criminal conduct in city government. The city sports a culture of corruption so brazen that it has included everyone from the (former) mayor down to local beat cops. The crimes perpetrated include everything from selling drugs to demanding kickbacks from government contractors to a $50 million embezzlement scam perpetrated by local tax officials.

It is therefore with a spirit of weary amusement that I read about a group of Chicago Public Schools officials and their recent purchase of $67,000 worth of espresso makers:

Chicago public school bureaucrats skirted competitive bidding rules to buy 30 cappuccino/espresso machines for $67,000, with most of the machines going unused because the schools they were ordered for had not asked for them, according to a report by the CPS Office of Inspector General.

That was just one example of questionable CPS actions detailed in the inspector general’s 2008 annual report. Others included high school staffers changing grades to pump up transcripts of student athletes and workers at a restricted-enrollment grade school falsifying addresses to get relatives admitted.

In the case of the cappuccino machines, central office administrators split the order among 21 vocational schools to avoid competitive bidding required for purchases over $10,000. As a result CPS paid about $12,000 too much, according to Inspector General James Sullivan. “We were able to find the same machines cheaper online,” he said.

So is that the problem – not that someone spent $67,000 on fancy coffee makers – but that they paid slightly too much for them? Would things have been acceptable if they had ordered them off of the website the IG found for $1,833 each instead of the actual purchase price of $2,233? More importantly, are they keeping them or can I buy one off of eBay at a massive discount?

One more thing: D.C. has, of course, had plenty of public school officials playing fast and loose with government money as well – amazingly, some of them even went to jail! In their defense, though, D.C. public school employees can be forgiven for thinking the District has an unlimited supply of cash. We spend about $24,600 per pupil per year — about $10,000 more than the average for area private schools.