The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Public school districts increase spending on travel

As California public schools climb out of a recessionary hole, Sacramento-area districts have ramped up spending for employee travel and conferences, including trips outside the state and stays at luxury hotels.

Districts in the Sacramento region spent $10 million on travel last school year – 23 percent more than three years earlier – as more money flowed thanks to a 2012 tax hike and economic turnaround.

District leaders said the trips were necessary to prepare teachers and administrators for the new Common Core State Standards, as well as advanced programs such as the International Baccalaureate track that some schools have added to attract high-caliber students. They also said they had to address a backlog of training needs after slashing travel budgets during the state budget crisis.

El Dorado Union High School District, which serves nearly 7,000 students just east of Sacramento County, outpaced all large local districts on employee travel and conference costs, in terms of spending per student. It spent $54 per student on travel in 2012-13, roughly 70 percent higher than the state average.

“(It) was a perfect storm of pent-up need for professional development, a pressing need to prepare for the Common Core, and funds being available,” said El Dorado Union Superintendent Christopher Hoffman.

Among the local school districts spending the most on travel:

District leaders defended their lodging choices, saying employees usually stayed at the conference host hotel at discounted rates. Natomas Unified employees have tried to find better prices on rooms, said district spokesman Jim Sanders, but that hasn’t always been possible.

Sometimes the cost of taxis or mileage to transport employees between a cheaper hotel and a conference diminishes any cost savings, said Joe Landon, executive director of business services at Roseville Joint Union High School District. “We want them staying at a reasonable place, but we don’t want it to be extremely inconvenient to save $10.”

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, questioned why school employees needed to travel to far-flung destinations to build their skills. He said districts should take advantage of webinars and online coursework at a cheaper cost. His organization opposed a successful 2012 statewide tax hike that Gov. Jerry Brown and education groups pitched as a school funding initiative.

While he said he wouldn’t rule out all out-of-state travel, he said, “There is a fine line between legitimate travel and junkets.”

As California schools integrate Common Core State Standards into classrooms, teachers and administrators have to learn how to build curriculum and teach using the new guidelines, which are designed to emphasize problem-solving and move away from exams that reward memorization. They also demand that educators understand a new computer-based testing system.

Common Core instruction drew 43 Twin Rivers employees to the Hyatt Regency resort in North Lake Tahoe last year, according to district records.

County schools chief David Gordon said districts shouldn’t have to travel to do training on the Common Core standards. The Sacramento County Office of Education offers a full catalog of Common Core classes for educators and can customize training for school districts.

“We will arrange it at a price that is far cheaper than an out-of-town course,” Gordon said.

International Baccalaureate programs consumed what was among the biggest chunks of travel costs. IB advocates say the curriculum prepares students for rigorous college study, allows them to earn university credits and helps them gain admission to top colleges.

In 2012-13, International Baccalaureate training had local teachers flying to New York, Houston, Memphis, Tenn., Detroit, Cincinnati, Miami Beach, New Orleans, Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Antonio and Bethesda, Md., among other cities.

“The IB program itself requires the trainings to ensure there is uniformity in curriculum and training,” Sanders said. “We consider it a darn good investment for our students.”

Natomas Unified spent more on IB training alone in 2012-13 than it spent on all conference travel in 2009-10, Sanders said. Sixty percent of the increase between those two years – $119,914 of the $201,207 increase – was tied directly to implementing IB programs at district schools.

El Dorado Union High School District doesn’t have an IB program, but it spent 94 percent of its training budget for 2012-13, as well as carryover from the previous year’s budget, for travel that year. Most went to teacher training, but the district also spent a good chunk of its money to send students to speech finals and to supply rooms for coaches at wrestling, golf, cross country, and track and field meets.

Travel and conference expenses reported to the state can include a range of costs, from student travel and registration fees for academic conferences to reimbursements for staff travel and conference fees, as well as employee travel between sites. Travel reimbursements generally include mileage, airfare and taxi costs. Based on records from several districts, the bulk of funds in this category went toward hotels and conference-based travel.

Local school districts increased travel and conference spending by 7 percent from 2012 to 2013 and by 23 percent between 2010 and 2013. Education leaders point out that 2009-10, the comparison year, was the height of the recession and school districts were cutting costs in all areas, including travel and conferences.

Travel spending is still down significantly from levels seen before the recession. In 2007-08, local school districts spent $15 million on travel.

Roseville Joint Union High School District, which has 10,200 students, cut transportation and conference costs dramatically in 2009-10 to avoid layoffs and furlough days, said Gary Stevens, assistant superintendent of business. He said the district started to spend money on travel and conferences to support professional development “now that the economy is improving and the district is able to return to a more realistic (funding) level.”

San Juan Unified spent the most overall on travel and conferences in the region, about $1.1 million. The district sent staff members to New York City, Memphis, Portland, Ore., Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Nashville, Tenn., Las Vegas and other cities across the nation.

Twin Rivers officials noted that about $200,000 of the district’s travel spending – far more than other districts – came from charter schools, which control their own spending. Overall, charters in the region spent about $325,000 on travel in 2012-13, or about 3 percent of the total spending in the region.

San Juan Unified spokesman Trent Allen said travel spending is sometimes required to be eligible for some grants. He said the Safe and Supportive School Sites program, for example, comes with a $1.2 million grant over three years. It required training in 2012-13 that cost the district $27,718.

One San Juan travel expenditure stood out: $200 paid to the Dharma House, a meditation and spiritual center in San Francisco. The district said Encina High School teacher Barry Roth couldn’t find a room at the hotel where he was attending a conference. Instead, he saved money by paying $50 a night at the residence of Bhikshu Karma Tinley Govinda, a western Buddhist monk.

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