TAMPA — Hillsborough School Board members agreed Thursday on guidelines to regulate their travel after spending $150,000 on trips to locations as far-flung as San Francisco and Las Vegas over the last four years.
Board members were pointedly courteous to each other during the two-hour meeting, called to address travel. Emotions have run high, with members taking shots at each other in news reports over the travel issue.
But everyone wanted to see it resolved Thursday, especially board member Susan Valdes. She has been in the limelight after spending $50,000 on travels in her first term, double the amount of any other member.
"It's a lesson learned," said Valdes, explaining her "bad choice" as enthusiasm to find new programs for local schools. Now up for re-election, she said her travel will not be an issue in the future.
Board members agreed travel should be budgeted a year in advance. The trips need to reflect a focus on student achievement. They are expected to report to district officials or each other.
Travel also should reflect realities within the district, like this year's budget cuts, which have resulted in tightened travel rules for employees. Even in flush years, district leaders spent less traveling than the board.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and nine top officials spent $92,000 in travel expenses over the last three years. That's about three-fourths of what board members spent in that time.
But school employees can and do accept free trips, but only for official business. The district has no formal policy on this, but Elia said it will be addressed as part of a broader revision to its policy book later this year.
Board members asked to be notified about vendor-paid trips before voting to award contracts.
"It's just something that has raised a little red flag for me," board member April Griffin said.
Having board guidelines marks a first step, but there was confusion over what happens next. Board member Candy Olson believed that adopting rules ended a self-imposed travel moratorium. The guidelines are slated for a final vote Aug. 19.
Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero saw the action merely as an opening to start planning future trips. That budget still has to be set by the board. And Faliero doesn't think travel is appropriate in a year of budget crisis.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.