Trustees with the Eastern School District spent more than $10,000 on two parties, CBC News has learned, including a booze bill that totalled in the thousands.
The board has since changed its policies on alcohol purchases, but is defending the expenditures.
Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador's education minister says he asked that such practices be stopped, saying they come from a different era.
Nathan Whalen, the new president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, obtained restaurant receipts outlining the expenses through access to information.
Whalen, 19, graduated from Bishop’s College in St. John’s two years ago, and is now chair of the school council. He remembers having to raise money for many things while attending school.
"At one point, we even had to fundraise for blinds so that students could see the smart board and learn in the classroom," Whalen told CBC News.
"We had to fundraise for jerseys, basketballs – you name it, you pretty well had to fundraise for it in the school."
He questions the school board spending uncovered by his access-to-information requests.
"I would hate to see excess funds that could be spent elsewhere in order to serve the best interest of our students, be spent unnecessarily, and be spent without good cause and solid justification," Whalen said.
One of the documents Whalen received was the total trustee expenses for the 2010-2011 year.
The largest single expenditure that year was more than $5,400 for a dinner for 55 people at Portobello's restaurant in downtown St. John's in December. Of that total, $1,220 of was spent on wine.
Another meal at Portobello's — this one for 40 people in June 2012 — came to more than $5,100. About $1,600 was spent on alcohol — mostly wine, but also beer, rum, whiskey, and port.
Those booze costs don’t include tax and tip.
"I'm still questioning what the value of those expenses were related to education," Whalen said.
Policies on alcohol
Board chair Milton Peach is responsible for trustee entertainment expenses.
The two events in question were held to mark retirement celebrations, he says.
"Trustees are volunteers, elected to a board, and they put in a lot of volunteer time, and at certain times of the year, we have to recognize some of our staff as well, and we do so in accordance with our policy," he said.
'Trustees are volunteers, elected to a board, and they put in a lot of volunteer time, and at certain times of the year, we have to recognize some of our staff as well, and we do so in accordance with our policy.'—Milton Peach
Peach said there are about 4,500 people in the district, and the board works within a budget of $450 million.
"We have a lot of people who retire and need to be recognized. Many of them retire with in excess of 30 years of service. So when you go out to a retirement function, our past policy has been that some alcohol would be provided, usually in the form of wine on the table. So I guess we adhered very strictly to what the policy was at that time," he said.
"When you take those numbers, and put them into the real world, I wouldn't take them to be excessive."
He stresses that the board has always followed its policies on alcohol purchases.
But those policies were recently altered.
Times have changed, minister says
Education Minister Clyde Jackman says times have changed.
"When I see alcohol expenses like that... 10 or 15 years ago, it may have been the acceptable thing, but today, it's just not the acceptable thing," he said.
"If I look back when I was principal of a school, I think 15 years ago, maybe 20 years ago, we would've had staff functions where we would've bought liquor probably from school accounts. And then all of a sudden that thing became taboo, so that none of that kind of stuff happens now," Jackman said.
"We're in a different place, and I think people's expectations are different, and therefore you adapt your practice to the current reality."
Jackman says the department asked all school boards to review their travel and entertainment policies and expenditures.
"I did become aware of these types of expenditures, and since then, they've all come back and adjusted their practices," he said.
The prior policy stated: "The purchase of alcoholic beverages is limited to circumstances where it is appropriate to the occasion, and must be moderate and reasonable."
In February, that policy changed: "The purchase of alcoholic beverages is limited to one glass of wine per person at district retirement functions."
The Department of Education itself put the cork in such purchases years ago.
In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the department spent just $13.75 on alcohol. There has been zero spent from the department’s budget on booze since.
That’s according to an access-to-information response posted on the provincial government’s website.
Other notable expenditures
Eastern School District also spends more on other expenses than the other boards.
The annual cost of attending conferences outside the province totalled nearly $50,000.
Peach says the trustees were asked to review board travel expenditures last fall.
"We cut our travel to conferences outside the province by 50 per cent," he said.
"Now we only have the chair plus two trustees who travel outside for PD, and I think that was a very responsible step to take."
The total expenses for Eastern trustees were also higher than their colleagues at the other three English boards — roughly $150,000, compared to $58,000 to $78,000.