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Florida House rivals target Kathryn Starkey's School Board travel expenses

Kathryn Starkey is the only elected official running in the House 45 Republican primary, which makes her record as a Pasco School Board member a prime target for her two opponents.

One issue they've raised? Starkey's travel expenses.

Researchers for Richard Corcoran's campaign made public records requests for School Board travel records. Fabian Calvo called on Starkey to release her records, and then distributed a campaign door-hanger that says she "has traveled at the expense of the taxpayer."

So how much has Starkey billed taxpayers for traveling to out-of-town meetings or conferences?

Over the past four years, around $6,440, according to a Pasco Times review of school district records. Those 18 reimbursements cover mileage, airfares, hotel stays and meals. Registration was typically covered by a separate district purchase order or by compliments of one of the associations.

Starkey had the highest travel expense of any other current School Board member and accounts for 65 percent of the total — $9,860 — spent on board travel over that four-year period.

But Starkey and her colleagues say there's a good reason for that: She's the one the board chose to send.

First elected in 2004, Starkey has served on the Florida School Board Association's board of directors since 2006 and has been the Pasco board's representative to the National School Board Association.

"To insinuate her travel is out of line would be incorrect, because she has attended those at the board's request," said chairman Allen Altman.

"No one else cares to put in the time that I do," said Starkey.

Starkey said the $6,440 doesn't cover the true cost of the amount of traveling she does on the district's behalf, much of which she picks up herself.

For instance, she said, she paid for two flights to Okaloosa to lead two groups of business leaders to Career Academies. She said she also did not charge the school district when she attended the National School Board Association meeting in Orlando in 2008.

"I got board certification, although I didn't put in all my travel for that. I paid for a lot myself," she said. "I would say most of my salary goes back to the community, whether it's through the Pasco County school district or other charitable donations."

Most of the trips were for meetings in Tallahassee, Tampa and Ocala and most were connected to the Florida School Board Association. Other meetings were certification training and the Florida Learning Alliance.

The only out-of-state trip was the April 2007 meeting of the National School Boards Association in San Francisco. That convention featured speeches by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

Starkey, who had just been appointed as the board's representative to the national group, billed the district for $1,073, which included $392 for airfare, $453 for hotel (she stayed two nights on the district's dime and one on her own) and $195 for meals.

She was the last board member to get funding for the national convention. As an austerity measure, the board decided by the next year no longer to pay for its members to attend the event.

"The national school board, that's just fantastic. You see what the best things going on in the districts around the country," Starkey said. "That's where I learned about paperless agendas, which we're about to go to. I think we should be sending a board member there every year. I think we're losing out when we're not finding out what's going on in the rest of the country."

Records show that the last time Starkey billed the School Board was in March for the two-day Florida School Board Association's meeting in Tallahassee. She was reimbursed $285 for a hotel stay and mileage.

Starkey noted that the board's overall travel expenses dwarf in comparison to expenses in some other districts.

In 2008, the Hillsborough School Board, for instance, decided to regulate its travel after spending $150,000 over a four-year period. One member alone had spent $50,000 just in her first term.

Given that context, Starkey said, she didn't see how her travel could be a campaign issue for her opponents.

"I don't think they're going to make an issue when they see how little it is," she said. "I've been very mindful and thoughtful about the public dollar. I think that's a trait that's been here a long time in Pasco County."

She took a thinly-veiled swipe at Corcoran, a former Republican Party staffer who has been criticized for racking up bills on a party-issued credit card.

"I would encourage my opponents, if they have any credit card records they want to share, they should be as open as mine are," said Starkey.

Corcoran has said it's up to the party, not him, to release the credit card records and maintains that the card in his name paid only for legitimate party expenses.

He said Starkey is vulnerable on her School Board travel.

"The politicians have lost sight of the fact that they're spending taxpayer dollars," he said. "These aren't the government's dollars, they aren't personal dollars, these are taxpayers' dollars."

The $6,440 "is a lot of money to most people in our district. That's a ton of money."

It's almost the same amount of money that Corcoran received ($6,885) in travel-related reimbursements over a three-month period in 2008 when he worked for the Republican Party, according to state election records.

Corcoran said his expenses shouldn't be compared to Starkey's, given it's private versus public funds.

"Not one penny of that was taxpayer dollars," he said, adding that he could have billed the state for travel when he served on a budget and taxation commission and chose not to do so.

Calvo said he thinks Starkey's travel expenses, however small, are fair game.

"Is that the kind of leadership we need? I'll let voters decide," he said. "I think it represents more of her big spending policies that we've seen on the School Board."

Since getting elected in 2006, Altman has billed the district for travel expenses only once, $173 for mileage and registration at the Florida School Board Association conference in Tampa.

Altman has gone to other annual meetings since then, but stopped charging the school district for it.

Why? "I just didn't. It truly is a public service," he said. "But I only go once a year, unlike Kathryn, who goes multiple times."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Florida House rivals target Kathryn Starkey's School Board travel expenses 07/31/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 10:30pm]
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