Records show since the beginning of this year Muscogee County School board members and school officials have spent at least $18,400 traveling out-of-town for conferences and training sessions.
News 3 was looking into the trips and their expenses before Monday night's work session were there was a heated debate about it.
Former board chair and current Board Member Cathy Williams called them tax-payer funded vacations. "NSBA in San Diego or Boston or San Francisco are not required of board members," she said.
From January through April seven school board members and officials took seven different trips for conferences and training.
Other board members disagreed with Williams' point of view. Board Member John Wells said, "This board has never spent all of its money we allocate for it. I think its money well spent. We do good for this community."
In an e-mail from the school district late Tuesday afternoon News 3 was told $29,000 dollars is allocated to the board for travel and registration. Eighteen thousand dollars comes from state professional development money and an additional $11,000 comes from the general fund. To date, the school board has spent $13,149.20 of the state money and $8,017.14 from the general fund. In Fiscal Year 2-14, the allocations will be the same.
Facing continued budget cuts from the state, the board has already voted to shut down two schools to help close a $40 million budget gap for next year. The district is now facing 20 possible teacher lay-offs and increased classroom sizes.
Expense reports and receipts all approved by Dr. Phillips, were turned over to News 3 under an open records request. They showed the district spent nearly $11,600 to send five board members and Phillips to San Diego, California to attend the National School Boards Association, or NSBA, annual conference. Records show two members, Shannon Smallman and Cathy Williams, canceled after registration was paid and did not attend.
On that trip, a receipt under Dr. Phillips' expense report shows a board group dinner at Greystone the Steakhouse was $785. The district said school business was not discussed.
Dr. Phillips would not grant News 3 an interview Tuesday. But Board Chair Rob Varner did and spoke about school board member travels. He said they are not frivolous trips.
Varner did not go to the NSBA Conference because of a business conflict, but said having a group dinner isn't unusual and helps foster good working relations.
In general, he said conferences are good learning opportunities. "People will shake their head and say that's insane and at one level I understand that. I really do."
He also said he understands it sounds like a lot of money, but said it is significantly less than it was about five years ago. The school district said in FY08 state professional development monies for board travel was $47,800.
Varner said the allocated money has to be looked at in the context of a $270 million expenditure budget and said that money wouldn't be enough to cover a teacher's salary. "It's not the value of the person and the job that's being lost. I get it. I really do understand that... but there is value and there is responsibility and there is need for board members to be exposed to other board members, not only across the state of Georgia, but across the nation so that we're doing the very best job that we can."
A web search revealed the NSBA Conference focused on learning new strategies to manage school district finances and operations among other things.
In January board member Pat Hugley-Green attended a Federal Relations Network Conference in Washington, D.C. The trip cost about $1,900. A web search revealed the conference helps board members establish relationships with members of Congress and gives background information on legislation impacting education.
There were also three expense reports for Communications Director Valerie Fuller. From February to April she went to three conferences centered on public relations development and using social media in educational institutions. Altogether they cost around $3,380.
Williams firmly disagrees with continuing to use the money to travel to non-required conferences.
"If we're not allowing our professional employees the same luxuries as we're allowing this board, that's just wrong."
School board members will be traveling to Savannah later this week for another conference. It counts towards their annual required training hours. Registration for the conference and a delegate assembly is $310 per person.
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