Dallemand’s tenure packed with trips near and far

Telegraph staffFebruary 26, 2012 

In November, while he was on a trip to a black educators conference in New Orleans, Bibb County school Superintendent Romain Dallemand dined mostly from room service and in-hotel restaurants at the Hilton Riverside.

But Dallemand also treated one of his deputy superintendents, Edward Judie Jr., to a night out at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, dining on lamb chops, New York strip and a crab-meat cocktail called a “Crabtini.” The men paid out of pocket for three glasses of wine, but the rest of the $170.11 tab went on the school-system-issued credit card that Dallemand uses.

Expense reports, credit card statements, and hotel and flight bills obtained by The Telegraph -- more than 1,000 pages -- show a pattern of frequent travel since Dallemand became superintendent of the Bibb County school system in February 2011.

Dallemand has been on at least 18 overnight trips since he became superintendent.

The documents also touch on several issues related to travel and credit card spending in the last year.

Records show that the spending limit on two credit cards used for staff travel has been increased, and the spending limit on one of the cards has more than doubled in the course of a year.

More than once during the year, bills for those cards came in higher than the spending limits, and other documents indicate that the system’s chief financial officer would not sign off on some of the spending.

This past July was a particularly busy travel month for Dallemand. He flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a conference on technology that month. The tab: $1,355.19 in hotel costs, another $728.07 in airfare, and $670 to register for the conference.

There were also bills for taxi services and meals, including a $52.18 dinner at a place called The Winking Judge Pub.

Later that same month, Dallemand was in Denver for another conference, this time a meeting of hospitality and restaurant educators. That travel bill included $440.35 for airfare and $1,527.69 for the hotel room. His room at the Grand Hyatt Denver, the conference site, was $219 a night -- plus an additional $35 a night “guest room upgrade.”

Dallemand’s travels also included trips to Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit and Charleston, S.C. -- all within his first six months at the helm of Bibb’s schools.

During his first year as superintendent, Dallemand spent at least $16,000 on travel, lodging, meals and conference registration fees, the documents showed. That total does not include all expenses for other employees who sometimes accompanied him on trips. And the records do not indicate whether Dallemand or the other employees repaid any of the costs above the state’s per-diem allowances.

A closer look

A Feb. 16 budget status report showed that $10,000 was allotted for Dallemand’s travel for fiscal 2012, which began July 1, 2011. The report indicated that more than $11,100 already had been made in payments for the fiscal year to date -- with more than four months left in the year.

Records obtained by The Telegraph did not include all receipts, and not all of the trips could be documented completely. However, some of Dallemand’s out-of-town travel included:

Seattle, March 6-8, 2011, Dallemand submitted $1,088.60 in lodging, meals, taxi and excess baggage fees.

San Francisco, April 8-13, National School Board Association annual conference. Dallemand’s hotel bill at the Marriott San Francisco Marquis totaled $1,245.95 and included room service charges of $64.78 and three separate charges of $32.32. Also on Dallemand’s credit card statement were charges of $120 and $75 to the Grand Limousine company. Dallemand’s registration fee for the conference was $980.

Chicago, April 22-25, for a meeting with PROACT, the search firm he used to help fill leadership positions on his staff. The trip cost $353.35 in airfare and $227.96 in lodging. Another $76.10 was charged to Dallemand’s school system credit card for a meal at a hotel restaurant and another in-room meal.

Savannah, June 16-19. While attending the Georgia School Board Association’s summer conference, Dallemand and school board members dined at the Chart House, running up a $702.75 bill on items such as calamari, lobster tail, crab-stuffed mushrooms and lava cake. The trip also included a $130.07 dinner at Rocks on the River. Dallemand’s hotel bill at the Mansion on Forsyth Street totaled $355.42 for lodging, parking and room service.

Detroit, no date documented, but Dallemand submitted a request for payment in June of $443.35 for airfare and $101.05 for lodging.

Orlando, Fla., Oct. 2-4. Documents indicate that Dallemand stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando. Dallemand’s credit card statement showed a $115 charge to Delta for a flight into Orlando but no lodging charged. Receipts show he paid by check for a $63.25 meal at the hotel.

Hartford, Conn., Oct. 11-14. Dallemand attended a conference with employees assigned to the new Welcome Center near Hutching Career Center. Airfare alone for the trip was $5,082.10, and lodging was $2,814.65. Documents show that $6,070.01 was wired to the charge card to cover costs.

Other destinations and expenses charged to the credit card that Dallemand uses included:

Atlanta, Feb. 24-25, 2011: $179.93 lodging.

Charleston, S.C., June 21-26: $224.92 lodging, $61.86 parking, $51 transportation, $57 at T-Bonz Grill and $77.70 at RB’s Seafood (snow crab entree).

Athens, Ga., Oct. 18-20: $373.17 lodging and meals.

Atlanta, Nov. 30-Dec. 3: $664.57 lodging, parking and room service.

Atlanta, Dec. 8-10: $531.74 lodging, $84.96 parking and in-room dining.

Huntsville, Ala.: Jan. 6-7, 2012, $142.55 lodging, $63 Ruth’s Chris Suite Service.

Tallahassee, Fla.: Jan. 21, $370.13 lodging.

Athens, Feb. 5-7: $339.72 lodging.

Houston, Texas, Feb. 13-21: $815 registration fee. Staff members said Dallemand was at work Feb. 21.

Looking for new ideas

When school leaders create a budget for the upcoming year, they may not always know what kind of spending they will ultimately need, said Ron Collier, the school system’s chief financial officer. Sometimes the school system will spend more than budgeted and sometimes less, he said. Whatever the budget may not cover may be paid for from the $1.4 million in staff and operational contingency funds, he said.

Dallemand, asked about his extensive travel, said the trips were needed to help bring in new ideas that will help transform the school system.

“The ideas will not come from inside Macon. The ideas need to come from outside Macon, outside the state, outside of the country.”

The documents also show that school administrators and others also traveled extensively in the past year, sometimes with Dallemand, sometimes without. Dallemand said their trips were consistent with travel that school system employees were already taking.

Another document includes a Jan. 16 excess baggage ticket from Delta with the airport code for Myrtle Beach, S.C., and a note that says “SC trip per Shirley (Fussell) 1 /20/12.” However, no other items related to a January trip to the Palmetto State could be found in the documents.

Dallemand said the South Carolina trip was taken during personal vacation time and paid for with his own money.

There were also receipts for meals in Tallahassee, Fla., on Jan. 26, 2012, with a handwritten note that they cost more than the daily spending allowance for meals. Dallemand said he went to Tallahassee to meet with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a group of 50 educators.

After an initial interview about details of his travel, Dallemand would not take follow-up questions from The Telegraph.

Planned, canceled travel

Bibb’s top administrators don’t plan to slow down their travel any time soon. In fact, Dallemand said he plans to send employees to Finland later this year to learn about their practices in early childhood education.

Besides the travel he’s already taken, Dallemand is scheduled to fly to New York City in April, according to the documents.

The documents also provided details of travel plans that Dallemand intended to make -- but ultimately canceled.

On Dec. 8, Dallemand received e-mail confirmation of his $1,865 registration fee for an Oxford Round Table discussion on early childhood education in England in March.

Dallemand forwarded the conference confirmation information to accounting manager Vicki Hulett right after receiving it. A handwritten note on a copy of the e-mail indicates “Being cancelled per e-mail 12/12/11 no credit on this bill.”

On Dec. 12, Dallemand wrote back to an Oxford Round Table representative: “I regret that I will have to withdraw my registration due to a conflict with a Board date. Please cancel my registration for Childhood Education. Please confirm cancellation. Thanks.”

The event is scheduled for March 11-15, according to Oxford’s website. That would conflict with the school board’s scheduled March 15 meeting. However, Dallemand registered to attend the conference only on March 11 and 12.

Dallemand said he decided not to take the trip because the system is in the middle of discussions on his strategic plan for the district.

Some of the documents Dallemand submitted for reimbursement have raised questions from employees in the system’s accounting department, the school documents showed.

Several of the meals for Dallemand and his staff, not just those from the Tallahassee trip, included handwritten notes indicating that they had cost more than the daily spending limits that the state allows.

State employees can get reimbursed $6 for breakfast, $7 for lunch and $15 for dinner. In high-cost areas of the state -- Chatham, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Glynn and Richmond counties -- employees can receive reimbursements of $7 for breakfast, $9 for lunch and $20 for dinner.

In an e-mail from June 2011, Shirley Fussell, Dallemand’s administrative assistant, asked then-school board attorney Warren Plowden to clarify the part of the superintendent’s contract that addresses his expense reimbursements. Fussell’s e-mail indicated that Collier, the school system’s CFO, said the school system could not pay for meetings Dallemand had with prospective job candidates, as well as lunches with local leaders, while Dallemand wanted to know if those lunches were covered in his contract.

In his response, Plowden wrote that he thought Dallemand could be reimbursed for those meals as part of the “reasonable expenses in the discharge of his duties.”

Spending limits bumped up

Since February 2011, the spending limit on two credit cards used for travel and other expenses has been increased.

The spending limit on a credit card used to pay for Dallemand’s travel expenses was $5,000 for the billing cycle from Jan. 4 to Feb. 3, 2011. The next billing cycle, which covered Dallemand’s first month on the job, showed a $10,000 limit for the same card.

Another credit card used for school system expenses also had its spending limit increased to $10,000 beginning with the monthly billing cycle for the card ending on Dec. 3., 2011. That card previously had a spending limit of $2,000.

Had the credit limit not been increased, the December bill of $2,094 also would have been over the allowed limit.

The month before, the school system exceeded the $2,000 spending limit by $303.06, used to pay for books, dining and hotel expenses.

In January, the school system paid $18,668.34 to pay off the two credit cards that Dallemand and his staff use for travel.

One had $14,850.18 in charges -- nearly $5,000 over the limit. Another document requested receipts for charges on that card totalling $12,344.60.

The second card, one that covers Dallemand’s spending, was charged for $3,818.16 that included expenses for Dallemand’s travel, conference registration, meals, a hotel room for Deputy Superintendent Susanne Griffin-Ziebart and a guest from a January conference, and other expenses.

A handwritten note dated Jan. 25, 2012, on a request for payment of those expenses said: “Per (accounting director) Sharon Roberts, Ron (Collier) will not sign. Pay bill today anyway.” The note does not indicate who wrote it.

Another Jan. 25 e-mail from Roberts to Collier, copied to Hulett and finance administrative assistant Kathy Gabriel, said: “Attached is a file with the receipts needed for charges. As per your instructions, the total amount of the bill $14,850.18 will be paid today.”

One of those credit cards now has a spending limit of $24,000, Collier said. The decision was made in recent weeks, he said, as several departments were using the card to cover expenses, such as reserving hotel rooms, when more than one person in the system is traveling.

Comparisons, and board reaction

At least two superintendents of similarly sized districts have traveled considerably less than Dallemand has during his first year in Bibb County.

Houston County school Superintendent Robin Hines said he’s been to events hosted twice a year by the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, the Georgia School Superintendents Association and the Georgia School Boards Association along with school board members. None of Houston County’s top administrators has traveled out of state in the last three years, though the system is now considering out-of-state travel on a case-by-case basis.

Since he became superintendent in 2010, Hines said his travel expenses have totaled just over $1,700, mostly for hotel expenses. Hines drives a car provided by the school system, and he hasn’t charged for meals.

Jim Whitson, Richmond County’s acting school superintendent, has spent about $1,390 in travel since June 1, said Lou Svehla, the system’s public information director. About $1,000 of that money covered travel to meetings in Madison, Atlanta and Athens, while $300 in grant money paid for Whitson’s expenses for a Race to the Top event in Washington, D.C.

School employees and board members in Richmond County have also cut down on travel and are taking part in conference calls and online meetings instead. When they do travel, they try to drive system-owned vehicles and carpool, Svehla said.

Bibb County school board members had differing views on Dallemand’s travel and the accompanying costs.

Tom Hudson said he hasn’t followed the extent of Dallemand’s travels and considered doing so micromanaging the superintendent.

As far as travel spending running over budget, he said spending can come in over or under what’s projected.

He also defended Dallemand’s travels by saying the superintendent has put in long hours outside of the regular work week to develop his strategic plan and meet with community members. All of that is to help Bibb’s students “compete from a global perspective.”

Hudson said the school board can’t hold Dallemand accountable for his actions if they don’t give him the freedom to carry out his duties as he sees fit. “We as elected officials hired Dallemand. We hired him to change the system.”

Board member Gary Bechtel said he was not made aware of most of the trips Dallemand has taken in the past year. He raised questions about the spending and the purpose of the trips.

Bechtel estimated that former Bibb school Superintendent Sharon Patterson made five to six out-of-town trips per year, which included statewide events as well as national conferences for groups such as the National School Boards Association.

While Patterson didn’t necessarily ask board members for permission to travel, Bechtel said, she usually notified them when she was doing so.

“I’d have a question with 18 trips and whether he’s spending the required time in the district to do what he was hired to do, to provide leadership to staff and the students.”

To contact staff writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331. To contact staff writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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