TAMPA — Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes defended her robust travel schedule Wednesday, calling the recent spate of attention to her bills a "setup" by other elected officials.
Valdes spent $50,000 in public money traveling in Hillsborough and beyond over the last four years, at least double the bill of any other board member. But she says her colleagues encouraged her to take several of the trips.
As an example, Valdes pointed to a trip to Las Vegas in 2005, where she accepted an award on behalf of the district. She said she was asked to go. She said other trips counted toward the requirements she needed to become a certified board member, a distinction that others encouraged.
Now other board members are drawing attention to her frequent trips, she said.
Valdes did not return calls for comment Tuesday, before the St. Petersburg Times published a story on the travel expenses. She blamed technological problems, including a power surge.
Her bills were the highest on a School Board that has spent $150,000 in public funds traveling in the last four years.
Valdes said she brought ideas back to the district, such as Alexander Elementary's dual language program, where students learn in English and Spanish. But other board members have stopped her from reporting on what she learned at conferences, she said.
Valdes said she supported the unanimous decision last week to temporarily suspend board travel until members come up with guidelines and a budget. She is seeking re-election and her opponent, Dave Schmidt, has made her travel a campaign issue.
Valdes pointed to her inexperience as a factor. In her first term in office, she has learned which conferences are valuable, and which are not. She said it would be interesting to review the travel expenses of longer-serving board members in their initial years.
"When I go to these conferences, I'm not out touring the town ... I am in the conference room, I am learning, I am bringing stuff back," she said. "Why didn't I stop? I really do believe it's part of our duty as board members to work for our paycheck."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.