A federal audit determined that Baltimore city schools misspent thousands of dollars of federal grant money during 2009 and 2010. That includes $4,352 from Title I funds spent on Inner Harbor dinner cruises for parents, staff, and volunteers, $2,413 spent on chicken dinners for 28 people, $1,336 spent on theater tickets for 30 people, and $500 spent on a makeover day for mothers and daughters.

The audit also found hundreds of thousands of dollars that may have been spent on legitimate expenses, but were poorly accounted for — incomplete time sheets, invoices with no description of services, that kind of thing.

As much as Republicans (and some Democrats) in the state legislature are using the findings as an opportunity to sneer at typical liberal spendthrifts who have squandered our hard-earned tax dollars (and on what? Makeovers?! Cruises?!), the reality is probably a little more complicated, and a little less politically convenient.

Certainly, the findings point to a sorry lack of financial oversight, but these apparently frivolous expenditures are not on par with Sheila Dixon’s embezzlement of gift cards intended for the poor. This is something else.

Especially in hard economic times, no one wants to see tax money spent on anything but the most obviously essential expenses. But Baltimore’s public education struggles are profound. They go beyond pencils, books, even more teachers. Parent involvement is crucial, as is retaining qualified faculty and staff. Working in education with the odds against you (and little public goodwill  besides) can be an absolute morale-killer. Events like cruises in the Inner Harbor and “makeover days” are opportunities for faculty to make get to know the parents of students and for volunteers and staff to feel appreciated.

But, yeah, $86 a head for chicken dinners is crazy.