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U-46 Board discusses taxpayer funded junkets

By Seth Hancock
  Should taxpayers in School District U-46 foot the bill for out-of-state junkets for private citizens?
  Board member Jeanette Ward raised the issue regarding a trip to Nashville, Tennessee which included four members of the public, at the Board of Education meeting on Monday, July 23. Nancy Coleman, Alignment Collaborative for Education’s (ACE) executive director, was one of the members of the public but she paid her own expenses.
  Donna Smith, the board’ president, later admitted during the discussion that it’s been a longtime practice for U-46 to send private citizens on taxpayer funded excursions.
  The other three members of the public included two Citizens’ Advisory Council (CAC) members and a second ACE member.
  Ward said she had just learned of the trip, which took place last September, in June via a social media post. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Examiner learned that U-46 sent 18 people on the trip at a taxpayer cost of at least $28,719 (without any additional reimbursements included in the cost) for registration and airfare.
  When Ward raised the issue during board member updates, she said: “In the future, when the district uses taxpayer funds to cover the costs of trips for individuals who are neither district employees nor elected officials, I propose that approval should be sought from the board.”
  The board initially continued with updates ignoring Ward’s concern, but U-46 CEO Tony Sanders later said: “That would be something the board could certainly consider, but I would take the guidance of the full board for that.”
   As the concern was not addressed Ward was forced to raise it again saying: “I think we should discuss that approval should be sought from the board if we’re going to pay for travel for non-elected community members who are not employees of the district.”
  Board member Phil Costello agreed with Ward and suggested that the district hires staff partly to attend conferences and fact finding trips.
  Sanders said: “Just to be transparent, we’ve had other incidents where we’ve paid parents for travel.”
  Smith said she’s attended taxpayer funded trips as a CAC member prior to being elected to the board in 2001, and board member Sue Kerr said she went to Washington, D.C. on the taxpayers’ dime as a CAC member which she called a “valuable experience.”
  “Sometimes it does, when we have a group like CAC who helps us work and make recommendations and everything on things, from a parent’s point of view, it does help to be able to see and be a part of that experience,” Smith said. She said her trip was for sightseeing: “It wasn’t really a convention, and I don’t think this was really a convention either, it was more seeing the sites for the (career) pathways.”
  Board member Melissa Owens said she didn’t “mind having that conversation” on whether the board should approve such travel, but she said taxpayer funded jaunts are “invaluable when we talk about family engagement.”
  Ward said “I just think that it should come before the board,” and Costello added: “I don’t doubt that the experience of going down there for a parent, be it as involved as a CAC or even the board, is a valuable learning opportunity, but I don’t think we’ll get the same things out of it that a staff person does.”
  “Yes, you’re right,” Smith said about Costello’s comment regarding staff. “They do have the expertise. But the parent portion can be a totally different piece of information for the administrators”
  The total cost of the Nashville trip exceeds the board’s policy regarding contracts. Code 4.060 states that all “contracts for supplies, materials or work involving expenditure in excess of $25,000” must receive board approval.
  In 2016, the board updated the district’s travel guidelines to align with state law which required all travel by elected board members to be approved at a “properly convened open meeting.”
  The eight-page travel policy references mostly staff and/or employees in its travel standards which has only one section near the end titled “Travel for non-employees” which states: “Additional costs for travel, lodging, meals or other travel expenses for spouses or other family  members will not be reimbursed. Travel requests for District-related business by non-U-46 employees must be pre-approved by the Chief Executive Officer/Superintendent or designee.”
  The Examiner did question the district to ask if when taxpayer’s funds have gone towards travel expenses for private citizens, could any taxpayer request to attend the trip or only certain members of the public invited by the district from groups such as the CAC?
  “I have not done a complete review but am only aware of U-46 parents invited by District administration to support District research and study aimed to benefit students and support our mission and strategic plan,” said Mary Fergus, director of communication.
  Fergus added: “These invitations are based on evidence of long-term and ongoing interest and engagement in District work.”






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