Schools police gave VIPs rides to the airport — and made more than $5,000 in overtime

A Miami-Dade Schools Police vehicle responding to an incident at Frances S. Tucker Elementary School on Feb. 11, 2016.
A Miami-Dade Schools Police vehicle responding to an incident at Frances S. Tucker Elementary School on Feb. 11, 2016.

When schools police from across the country met in Miami for a conference this summer, the packed schedule included sessions on violence prevention, presentations from security tech vendors and plenty of opportunities to network.

But the June conference also provided some big perks for Miami-Dade Schools police officers, including more than $5,000 in overtime for picking up VIP guests from the airport or organizing rides.

For each of the 22 rides provided to conference-goers, schools police charged an average of $157 in overtime. The sergeant who organized the rides did even better, billing 30 hours of overtime to coordinate airport pick-ups and drop-offs at a total cost of $1,830, according to overtime slips obtained through a public records request.

Although the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials, an independent nonprofit, ran the conference, the Miami-Dade schools police picked up the tab for other conference expenses as well, including $1,200 for posters and programs. Schools police also got several thousand dollars in overtime for other tasks associated with the conference, including picking up supplies, providing around-the-clock security at the event and attending conference sessions.

While school officials have stopped short of saying the spending violated district policy, the airport rides — which were brought to the school district’s attention by the Miami Herald’s public records request — have sparked questions and condemnation from a district already grappling with limited funds.

“Following best practices that are aligned to sound fiscal accountability and decision-making is critical to honoring the public trust,” school district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said in an e-mail. “While the expenditures may be permissible, to ensure that the financial integrity of our school system is maintained, we have requested that the Office of Compliance Audit conduct a thorough review of payroll expenses associated with this matter.”

The school district has since taken measures to “strengthen” overtime approval procedures for schools police, Gonzalez-Diego added.

Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett, who is president of the national association, acknowledged that the schools police officials who got the VIP airport rides could have used ride-sharing apps or hailed a cab, but said the idea was to “provide positive initial interactions” with conference-goers and involve schools police “as part of esprit de corps.”

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Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett. Miami Herald file photo

“Providing limited transportation to key individuals attending the conference has been a practice throughout the nation, and helps showcase the host district’s personnel and resources,” he said in an e-mail.

Without the conference guests’ flight times, it’s difficult to estimate how much an Uber or Lyft would have cost, but it likely would have been far less than $157 a ride. A Lyft or Uber from Miami International Airport to the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay, where the conference was held, could start as low as $20, according to online fare estimators. A ride from the Fort Lauderdale airport would likely cost upwards of $35.

Moffett stressed that all of the conference-related expenses covered by the schools police were paid for using special funds “which did not have any direct impact on the general operating budget”.

He said the schools police used forfeiture and citation funds — special law enforcement funds that come from assets police seize, like cash and cars, and from traffic tickets in school zones — which can legally be used for a variety of law enforcement expenses, including training and equipment.

But it’s unclear whether airport rides for a conference organized by an outside entity are an allowable use of these funds, and whether the schools police planned to use the special funds to pay for overtime.

The police department initially paid for the overtime using taxpayer funds, but reimbursed the money with citation funds in early September, after the Herald submitted public records requests for overtime slips. Moffett said the initial use of general funds was necessitated by an internal accounting protocol and that the schools police initiated the reimbursement process before the Herald requested records. He did not provide documents showing when the transfer was requested.

“These expenditures were always intended to be covered by special funds,” Moffett said in an e-mail.

A source with direct knowledge of the transfer, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared retribution, said the funds were only reimbursed after the Herald started asking questions. A second source confirmed this account.

Although Moffett said the conference expenses were “allowable,” he said the “discovery of these expenses” led him to conduct “an immediate review” of the department’s overtime process, which has resulted in a new overtime policy. The new policy calls for the deputy chief of schools police and Moffett to review and audit all overtime, Moffett said.

Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.