Huber Heights school district spends COVID relief funds on learning trips, lobster dinner

Editor’s note: This story is part of a Dayton Daily News investigative project titled Billions in COVID aid: Where it’s going. Go here for more on this project, including searchable databases showing how your community spent CARES Act funds and now much it is getting in American Rescue Plan funds.

Huber Heights City Schools used federal COVID relief funds to send school board members and administrators on learning trips to Maine and New York that included a $500 lobster dinner, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

School board members and administrators in December visited schools in Portland, Maine, and Rochester, New York. They also booked flights and planned trips for this year to Napa Valley, California, and Loudon County, Virginia. Those trips were canceled because of COVID restrictions but all costs couldn’t be recouped.

The four trips cost the district $36,287, which it paid using federal COVID relief funds, records show.

» MORE ON SCHOOL SPENDING: How local school districts are using $818M in COVID relief funds

Superintendent Jason Enix said the trips were organized by the district to learn more about project-based learning, a teaching method involving students learning through real-world projects.

“The schools that were attended on those trips were schools that were kind of seen as model schools or exemplary schools within the deeper learning model or project-based learning model,” he said. “So the trips themselves were expected to be kind of a way to go and see it live and in action.”

The Huber Heights School District strategic plan adopted in July 2021 includes implementing project-based learning — also referred to as “deeper learning” — district-wide by August 2024. Sending staff members to visit deeper learning schools across the country is part of that plan.

“This was done in the direction of the strategic plan,” said Enix, who was hired as superintendent in April.

Ten people attended the Maine trip, including then-superintendent Mario Basora — who resigned in January — school board president Robert Mullins, school board member Mark Combs, principals and teachers.

The agenda for the trip included a Dec. 7 visit to King Middle School in Portland, where they visited classrooms and met with teachers and administrators.

Basora used his district credit card to buy dinner for the party on Dec. 6 at RiRa Irish Pub and Restaurant. The bill totaled $348.16. An itemized receipt includes entrees priced up to $21. No drinks were listed.

On Dec. 7, they had dinner at Boones Fish House and Oyster Room, which advertises itself as “home of the original baked stuffed Maine lobster.” Orders included two 1.5-pound baked lobsters at $60 each. The total bill was $499.93, not including the tip, which they paid in cash.

Enix said the district treasurer’s office flagged these meals as exceeding what’s allowed by district policy, which is $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch and $25 for dinner, including tip. Payroll records provided by the district show Basora had $348.09 deducted from his last few paychecks to repay the district.

On Dec. 14, board member Shannon Weldon, district curriculum director Matthew Housh and a different group of principals and teachers visited the Genesee Charter school in Rochester. The 14 participants visited classrooms and met with teachers and students.

During the trip, they booked a vehicle through Giorgio’s Limousine Service for $388.80. Enix said the vehicle was a large passenger van, not a limo. Several attendees filed for reimbursement for driving to the airport, parking and meals, with the largest expense listed at $113.50 for the three-day trip.

Enix said the district is proceeding with implementing deeper learning. There are no plans to conduct the two trips that were canceled due to COVID restrictions, even though the district could only get a credit and not a reimbursement for the tickets.

“These trips are not necessary. We’re not going to be taking those trips,” he said. “There are no other scheduled deeper learning trips for the district.”

Some Huber Heights parents say they could think of better ways for the district to spend federal COVID money.

Rachel Cunningham, mother of a first-grader and third-grader in Huber Heights, said they should use the money to hire more teachers, especially for younger students who suffered setbacks from virtual school.

“The more individualized attention I think would just be so much better for a lot of the kids because you have so many kids per classroom and one teacher trying to do everything,” she said.

Jessica Waddell of Huber Heights said her child is on a waiting list to get into subsidized preschool, so she would rather see the district spend money on that to help young kids learn socialization after being isolated during the pandemic.

Basora, Mullins, Combs and Weldon did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

About the Author