The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Travel expense funding in U-46 ignites debate
By Seth Hancock
One School District U-46 Board of Education member’s attempt at achieving accountability and transparency led to sparks flying at the Monday, Aug. 6 board meeting.
At question was a trip for the Academies of Nashville Study Visit, and it included two members of the Citizens’ Advisory Council (CAC) which is made up of unelected and non-U-46-employee members of the public. It also included two members of the Alignment Collaborative for Education (ACE), but according to a memo, Nancy Coleman, ACE’s executive director, “paid for her own registration and flight.”
Board member Jeanette Ward raised the trip to Nashville, Tennessee at the July 23 board meeting. She suggested that if taxpayer dollars are spent on travel for private citizens, it should be approved by the board first.
The memo was drafted jointly by Terri Lozier, assistant superintendent, and Lela Majstorovic, incoming assistant superintendent, and The Examiner obtained it as well as some emails and a cost breakdown through a Freedom of Information Act request.
According to the memo, there were 18 people sent on the trip and registration (including hotel, breakfast and “opening night light snacks”) was $1,399 per person for a total of $23,783 excluding Coleman. An additional $4,936 was spent on airfare while two staff members were listed as having driven to the event with no indication if any travel expenses were reimbursed to them, making the grand total $28,719 before any meal reimbursement.
“Staff members were allowed to seek reimbursement for one lunch meal and two dinner meals not to exceed $40.00 total,” the memo stated. “CAC and community members were told up front that the district could not reimburse them for meals.”
The purpose of the trip according to the memo was to see “potential changes coming to secondary education; and to observe the academy model that Nashville uses” as the district pursues the career pathways model.
The staff members who attended include Lozier, Trisha Shrode, Valerie Brosius, Yvette Gonzalez, Mike Demovsky, Krystal Thomas, Chris Boden, Debbie Perryman, Amy Ingente, Jackie Johnson, Tracey Jakaitis, Annette Acevedo, Jamie Crosen and Brian Moran. The two CAC members were Larry Bury and Lisa Hopp, and Yvonne Irving of KCT Credit Union was the other ACE member to attend.
Mary Fergus, director of communication, was asked how Bury and Hopp were selected and if any member of the public could have requested to attend. She said: “CAC executive members were invited. They have been working with the district for the past two years as we have reviewed and studied ways to increase college and career pathways for all our high school students.”
Ward first emailed U-46 CEO Tony Sanders about the trip on June 2 who replied the same day that he would send the cost of the trip to the board. Over two weeks later, on June 17, no costs were given and Ward had to inquire again, and the memo with the cost was sent on June 18 and added further follow up on June 28, including: “I don’t remember this being communicated to the board beforehand. Was it?” Sanders responded that day: “As we have been thinking about moving to career pathways, seeing how other districts have implemented is important. CAC along with other partners have been working to help us in planning for this shift…. No, Board approval was not required for this trip as it was below the guideline for expenses.”
Ward asked another question about the legality of using taxpayer funds to pay for travel of private citizens on June 28 and for three weeks she did not receive a response. She asked again on July 19 for the legality and notified that she would raise the issue at the July 23 meeting, and Sanders responded that day that a memo (which is not public) would be drafted by the legal team and provided to the board.
Ward did suggest, at the meeting, that the members of the public who attended the trip reimburse the taxpayers but rescinded that on Aug. 6 saying she agreed with board member Melissa Owens.
Owens said on July 23: “I’m not going to entertain asking the two CAC members to reimburse. This is a year ago. What’s done is done.”
Board member Phil Costello wrote in a blog post that the district should “suspend paid trips to conventions for non-staff that do not have the expertise, qualifications, or capacity to deploy learning opportunities inside the classroom.”
That blog post and Ward’s concerns offended both Bury and Hopp who attended the Aug. 6 meeting to give the CAC update, but instead of the update they were given nearly 40 minutes to explain how valuable they are and why they deserved to have taxpayers fund their trip. In contrast, other citizens who address personal concerns with the district or board are generally limited to three minutes during public comments which included that evening a family who addressed their son being bullied forcing them to pull their child from the district and pay for private school because they felt the district did not address the bullying.
Hopp was near shouting at Costello and Ward at points in the discussion and Ward, at one point, having to say: “I listened to you while you were speaking, and I’d appreciate the same courtesy.”
Ward was accused of providing “misinformation” by Hopp because Ward said the trip included members of the public who were not elected leading to a semantics debate by Hopp because she said she was elected to the CAC executive committee by other CAC members. CAC members are appointed by administrators, and are not elected by the general public.
Clarifying, Ward said that board members get petitions signed, get on the ballot, get certified on the ballot and “campaign for six months and you’re elected in a consolidated election by the public at large. That’s what I meant when I said elected.”
Hopp responded: “We are your advisory council. I do not understand why you do not understand that. We are actually with the families in the different school districts and we are actually in the schools, and our membership elected us. I am sorry you were not invited to go on this trip. It was not my place or Larry’s place or anyone on CAC to invite you to go on this trip.”
Continuing, Hopp said she was offended that Costello said “qualified” staff should attend trips because that implied she was “unqualified.”
Costello said: “If we’re going to debate this let’s talk about it, but I don’t think we actually should be debating it right now. I think this is out of line, but qualified means people who we pay money to, our staff. That’s what I meant by qualified.”
Smith agreed that the discussion was out of line then allowed it to continue nearly 10 more minutes.
Hopp made further accusations: “Excuse me Mr. Costello, just a few months ago you and I had a conversation where you actually said our staff was not qualified and you wanted to overturn schools.”
Costello said that was “categorically wrong.”
Owens shared Hopp’s offense saying “let’s not go down the road of saying that people are or are not qualified,” and saying that because she was previously on CAC she knows they are “qualified to do this work.”
“If I said it disparagingly, then shame on me,” Costello later said. “But I meant that our staff should be there, not outsiders. You should be representing parents, and you do a great job at that.” Costello did add that “we need to stop this” discussion as it continued to be unproductive.