TAMPA — Hillsborough School Board members have spent $150,000 of public money for business travel to locations as far-flung as Alaska and San Francisco in the last four years.
No one has traveled more extensively — or at greater expense — than Susan Valdes. Over the last four years, Valdes amassed $50,322 in expenses for trips within Hillsborough County and beyond. That's at least double the bill of any other Board member.
"It's sure a big number," Board member Candy Olson said.
Olson, who had not seen the detailed report, has volunteered to help the board draft tighter guidelines for planning and budgeting travel. Last week, the board imposed on itself a temporary moratorium on out-of-county travel, excluding already planned trips. They won't resume traveling until a process for self-monitoring is in place.
Olson cited her trip last year to Alaska as an example of a prudently planned expense. It cost the district about $650. She serves on the executive committee of the Council of the Great City Schools, which met there last spring. This year it met in Pittsburgh.
"I've always tried, because I go to Great City Schools, not going to other conferences as often," she said. "We ought to share the wealth."
Olson justified her travel expenses, which totaled $23,900 over the four years, as resulting in positive change for the district, such as audits of the Hillsborough transportation and purchasing departments by the Council of Great City Schools.
Her travel bills nearly tied those of Doretha Edgecomb, who spent $23,400 over four years. The lightest traveler was Carol Kurdell, who charged the district only $7,600 in travel expenses.
No one came close to the traveling schedule of Valdes in her first term in office.
In 2005-06, she racked up $17,400 in travel expenses, the highest one-year total. That year, she attended education-related events in Las Vegas, New York, Charleston, S.C.; Chicago and Washington, D.C. She also traveled extensively around Florida.
Valdes did not return calls for comment. Now running for re-election, her opponent, Dave Schmidt, is making an issue of her many trips.
"There should be travel limits," he said, pointing out that the Board, at present, lacks limits and a budget. "A lot of travel can be eliminated by online research and Web-based conferencing."
Board Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero, who requested the four-year analysis of travel by elected officials, agreed. She led the call for a temporary halt on out-of-county travel at the last meeting.
She doesn't think travel should continue during a time of budget cuts, but acknowledged that other board members don't agree. She is pushing for oversight and budgeting that would equalize travel among officials.
"We didn't have a policy, so you leave yourself open to all kinds of abuses," said Faliero, whose own expenses totaled $13,000. "Even though you hope people will use common sense, that hasn't happened here."
Times staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.