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U-46 Board approves changes to travel policy


By Seth Hancock
  The Board of Education in School District U-46 unanimously approved of changes to its policy under Section 4, concerning operational services, at its meeting on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.
  Although a 7-0 vote, board member Jeanette Ward addressed concerns that changes to Policy 4.052, expense reimbursements, did not go far enough. That policy addressed policy guidelines for taxpayer funded travel by the district which has included funding travel for non-staff members.
  The changes to that policy included added language to require board approval for district trips costing $25,000 or more with additional “criteria that administration is to consider for determining the value of a trip,” according to Luis Rodriguez, assistant attorney.
  Ward said the change was a “move in a positive direction,” but she continues to believe the board should vote, or at least be updated, whenever U-46 uses taxpayer dollars to fund trips for private citizens. Illinois law requires that all travel by elected board members paid for through tax dollars, regardless of cost, be voted on in public.
  “I appreciate the concessions that the board made that at least we will hear about trips if they cost the district more than $25,000,” Ward said. “However, I still maintain that we should hear about non-staff, especially overnight travel, as a board and we should be voting on it. I still believe that to be true.”
  Ward and board member Phil Costello both argued for greater transparency on how taxpayer dollars are spent at the Dec. 3, 2018 meeting during the policy discussion. Ward said “as a general principle” she believes the public has a right to know “because it’s their tax dollars and because the potential for abuse is high. I’m not saying abuse has occurred, I’m saying the potential for abuse is high.”
  If not voted on, Ward suggested the board at least be informed when the district funds travel for non-staff via a memo, but a majority of the board disagreed.
  Board members Sue Kerr and Melissa Owens both argued that there would be too many trips which is why the board shouldn’t be informed about them while Donna Smith, the board’s president, argued there were too few that it didn’t matter. Smith and board member Veronica Noland both said they “don’t need to know” how tax dollars are spent with regards to trips by non-staff.
  The travel discussion stemmed from a debate from last July when a 2017 trip to Nashville, Tennessee came to light as U-46 sent 18 people on a sight-seeing tour of a school district. Included were four unelected, non-staff members of the public, although one paid her own costs according to information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
  For the three members of the public that the district paid for, the cost was $4,197 for registration (including hotel, breakfast and “opening night light snacks”) plus $907 in airfare.
  At the time, Smith defended the practice and said she’s “been on a couple of those trips before I was on the board” and was “very honored” and “very lucky” to have taxpayers fund her own travel. She described these trips as “more seeing the sites.”

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