Education

Bibb school district travel expenses up nearly 80 percent since 2010

When Bibb County school board members kicked around ideas recently to shave expenses for the coming budget year, cutting spending on travel was part of the discussion.

And a look at the numbers shows why.

Within the past few years, the school district has had an increase in travel spending. On average, the district’s travel spending has increased a little more than $30,000 each year since 2010, excluding travel funds that are built into various grants.

Bibb’s total travel spending increased from about $160,623 in 2010 to $284,856 in 2014, an increase of more than 77 percent, records from the district show. That total includes all travel -- from the superintendent and board members to program directors, teachers and everyone in between.

The increase “can be attributed in some part to inflation,” according to an email statement from Stephanie Hartley, the system’s communications coordinator. “Strict travel restrictions” were in place from 2008 to 2011 because of the struggling economy, she added.

“As the years passed, those restrictions were eased and employees were encouraged to participate in relevant professional learning opportunities to enhance their work in the district,” the statement said.

For board members, travel funds can pay for mileage, food, and hotel rooms and are used mainly to attend various state and national conferences for continuing education purposes.

But some board members have run up more travel costs than others.

The Telegraph examined travel data for board members going back to 2010 and found that the average travel expense per year, per board member, is about $1,400.

Tom Hudson’s yearly travel expense average is more than double that -- $3,583 -- and he has spent no less than $2,693 per year since 2010.

Hudson said he goes to all state conferences to get his required credits, and he goes to national conferences for the learning experience and networking that comes with being exposed to different school administrators from across the country.

“I will continue to do that unless there is a restriction. There is money in the budget for travel,” Hudson said. He added that several years ago, when the district put a restriction on travel, he did not attend the national conference.

Wanda West and Jason Downey also have spent above the $1,400 average during their terms.

West spends an average of $2,042. Those totals also include some last-minute cancellations for hotel rooms and conference registration fees in which taxpayers still had to foot the bill. Most recently, West canceled late after signing up for a national conference in Tennessee last month.

“Since the district received notification after the cancellation deadlines, the following charges will not be refunded,” read a district memorandum that The Telegraph obtained through an Open Records Act request. The charges to the school district totaled $1,262 -- $1,010 for the registration and $252 for one night of hotel lodging.

West said that cancellation was due to a death in her family, but it wasn’t the first time a room has been booked for her and she didn’t use it.

This past September, a hotel room was reserved for her for a conference in Atlanta, but she drove there the next day instead. Similarly, she failed to use a hotel reservation last summer in Savannah and in the summer of 2013.

West said those unused reservations were due to her husband’s unexpected illness or because she had to take care of other business concerns.

For the times when her tardiness wasn’t related to a family emergency, West said, “I have offered to reimburse that cost.” To date, no reimbursements have been made.

Downey’s average spent on travel is $1,721. He attributes his average to a stretch in 2014 when he spent $3,322 to travel to two conferences in one week last June -- the Georgia School Boards Association and the regional National School Boards Association conference, both held in Savannah.

“At these conferences, I was appointed as the delegate for Bibb County, representing our interests as a county at business meetings,” he said. “I delivered a report at the first Bibb Board of Education meeting after I returned.” He said he attended the regional conference only because it was the first time in years that it was being held in Georgia.

“Had it been anywhere else out of state, I would not have attended,” he said.

His total travel spending in other years was below the average ($1,217 in 2013 and $625 so far this year).

State law requires that school board members obtain a total of nine credit hours of board governance training each year to serve on the board. Additional orientation classes for first-year board members require them to have 15 hours.

Bill Sampson, a consultant for Georgia School Boards Association, said three of those credit hours need to be “whole board governance training,” in which all board members and the superintendent attend simultaneously.

The registration cost can vary by conference, but this year’s GSBA summer conference has already been paid out -- for six board members -- at the rate of $350 per board member.

But there is a cost-saving alternative.

In lieu of attending the conferences in person for the required credits, board members can also take online courses at the rate of $25-$35 for a two-hour course (a total of $75-$105 for the required six hours). For the whole board governance training, Sampson said GSBA will send their officials to a school district’s home board room.

For board members to receive all the mandatory training, Sampson added, “Technically, they don’t have to go anywhere.”

Former board member Lynn Farmer, who just rotated off four months ago, said that in her first years the travel budget for board members was $1,800.

“If we wanted to travel more than that $1,800 would allow, we had to ask other board members if we could use their surplus money,” she said.

With more cost-cutting measures on the horizon for the school district, which could include a 10 percent reduction in operating costs, more school consolidations/closings and a targeted hiring freeze for the coming fiscal year, Farmer has her own opinion on what the district’s travel policy should entail these days.

“When times are lean, like they are right now,” she said, “out-of-state travel should not even be allowed.”

To contact writer David Schick, call 744-4382.

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