Sunday, June 17, 2018
Education

Pasco school district travel spending under scrutiny

After years of severe limits on out-of-county travel, Pasco school district administrators have again begun taking trips for recruiting, training and idea gathering.

As the frequency of excursions and number of travelers increase, School Board members are asking pointed questions about whether the money and time are being wisely spent.

"We're in the business of education. We need to save money," vice chairman Steve Luikart said. "If we're going to send people, send the fewest amount possible. Then share (the information)."

Some recent trips have taken high-level leaders to California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, sometimes on back-to-back weeks. In some instances, the conference fees neared $700 per person. Teams as large as 10 people have trekked to Miami for overnight stays while visiting schools they might like to copy.

It took a recent trip to Mooresville, N.C., to bring the issue to the surface.

Superintendent Kurt Browning asked the board on July 22 to approve a trip to a conference on classroom technology at the Mooresville school district. Materials in the board's agenda did not include the cost or the number of employees traveling — or note that the group had left the day before.

Chairwoman Alison Crumbley pulled the item from the consent agenda, usually reserved for non-controversial matters, and immediately criticized the request.

"There are a lot of people going on this trip," Crumbley said, citing information provided away from the meeting that she requested. "I think it might be too many."

Eight people led by assistant superintendent Amelia Larson attended the three-day event, which cost the district $11,738.

That outing came just two days after Larson and two other administrators returned from a conference on learning communities in Boston. That event carried a $3,846 price tag.

Two months earlier, Larson traveled with key executives to Pennsylvania for a summit where they learned about STEAM curriculum and inquiry-based problem solving. In June, she and others attended conferences in Orlando and Daytona Beach. The fee for the Orlando event was $589 per person.

Over the course of a year, she took 10 out-of-county trips, costing the district just under $8,700 — about double the amount that Browning spent to travel. In most instances, others went along, incurring similar hotel, airfare, conference fees or other expenses.

Larson defended travel as key to the district doing its job well.

"I always go to places that are ahead of us. It makes no sense to stay where we are," she said, noting that she spends hours online nightly studying issues, choosing to go to locations that can provide more insights than are available through reading and videos.

All her visits stuck to the themes of deeper learning and digital instruction, she added. They were most often paid for with federal grants dedicated to professional development, not to be confused with general district-level expenditures such as salaries or classroom materials.

"If you look at my position and the amount of learning I have to do independently to move my departments forward, it is my responsibility," Larson said.

She stressed that point to the board in an email after learning of their displeasure with the North Carolina trip.

"The bottom line," Larson wrote, "is that to provide our students with a world-class education requires significant changes and some of the answers are not in Florida."

But board members, keen to how things look to the public, saw the spending on flights and hotels as a potential target for criticism in a county still struggling to emerge from recession. They're also having trouble generating money for raises.

"While I know our budget is improving, I want some moderation as we allow travel again, and not to just go from one extreme to another," board member Joanne Hurley said. "It seems to me the minute the district realized we were in a better place financially, the requests started flying in."

Six years ago, the district's out-of-county travel expenses reached $474,387. The travel budget and spending declined over several years, to nearly half that amount. Lately, though, the numbers have begun to tick upward.

The district spent $261,588 on travel in the recently ended fiscal year. The new budget allocates $274,979 in miscellaneous travel.

Hurley suggested that even when travel is justified, the district does not need to send large groups of people.

"If we can't send three and have them come back and explain everything, I don't think we should be doing this," she said.

Luikart agreed, adding that the explanations also need to come to the board members who are approving the bills.

"We need to be convinced there is a benefit to students in this county," Luikart said. "If you can't convince us, then you don't need to go anywhere. Whenever they come up with travel again, that's going to be the first thing that comes out of my mouth."

Larson said each trip she attended has generated specific benefits for Pasco County.

The K12 EduCongress in San Diego, for instance, brought the district two new models of one-to-one technology instruction, she said, while her time at the Superintendents' Summit in Pennsylvania helped create curriculum for the district's summer STEAM camp while also giving insights in planning a STEAM magnet at Sanders Elementary.

"I don't go in fishing for things," Larson said. "There is a purpose for it."

Browning said he backed all the staff travel requests that he has taken to the board.

"This district has been lagging behind in professional development," he said. "We have new standards to implement. We also have a technology initiative we want to get right. We have to invest."

At the same time, he acknowledged the administration's need to do a much better job of communicating with the board and the public about that investment. Although the funding does not come from general revenue, he said, "we still need to be good stewards of that money."

Hurley said she expects nothing less.

"There may be some travel required," she said. "But I will continue to question how, where, when and why. … I really want open dialogue about travel before we do more of it."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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