The Public Eye

Sacramento-area school districts spend thousands to win awards

Sacramento-area school districts are spending thousands of dollars annually to enter contests and win awards for employees.

Twin Rivers Unified spent more than $1,000 annually – for a total of $3,560 – to enter the Association of School Business Officials International Meritorious Budget Award competition over the last three years. The district won the award for fiscal management all three years.

The ASBO contest is one of the most costly contests entered by local districts. It has entry fees starting at $600 for member districts with budgets of less than $50 million and up to $1,475 for nonmember districts with budgets of more than a billion dollars.

School district communications departments in the Sacramento region also spent big on entry fees.

Twin Rivers reported paying $907 between 2012 and 2014 for entry fees in the National School Public Relations Association awards, according to public records requested by The Sacramento Bee. The Sacramento County Office of Education spent $1,215 and San Juan Unified $985 for contest entries in the California School Public Relations Association awards program during that same time.

“Spending $3,000 to enter a contest to hope to win an award seems a little unseemly,” said Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Coupal said most people would think the money could have better been used for books or to update facilities.

But Twin Rivers Superintendent Steven Martinez said the contests serve a worthy professional development purpose.

“You are paying for the peer-review process,” he said. “You get an award or you get critical feedback.”

Martinez said he decides whether to approve entry fees based on whether the contest will make a department better.

“It’s not so much so we can get awards,” he said. “Our employees are really proud of their work, and when they approach me and want to submit, I don’t say no.”

Sacramento City, Natomas and Folsom Cordova unified school districts all said they could not find records that the district had paid entry fees for contests that offered recognition to district-level employees.

Districts don’t have a uniform system to track such entry fees. Some lack a specific accounting code for them.

After initially finding no contest expenditures, Elk Grove Unified located two receipts totaling $170 for California School Public Relations Association entries when asked about awards touted on the district website. The communications department won three awards from CalSPRA and two from the National School Public Relations Association in 2013, according to the site.

Entry fees charged by CalSPRA are used to cover the cost of administering the association’s awards program and help defray the cost of the banquet, said Daniel Thigpen, CalSPRA president and spokesman for Folsom Cordova Unified. He said the entry fees cover the cost of awards and shipping entries to a sister chapter in New York for judging.

Although most of the entry fees are paid by districts, some individuals pay out of their own pockets, Thigpen said.

The awards program is an extension of professional development and helps district communications staff share best practices, Thigpen said. “It makes us better practitioners.”

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.