School board trip under fire

April 16, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

A recent trip by school board members from Howard, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties to a national education conference in San Francisco could aggravate budget tensions just as local governments are haggling over how much to spend on education.

The costs of the taxpayer-funded trips represent a tiny fraction of the school systems' budgets. But politicians already are pointing to them as questionable expenses and could use them as justification to hack away at school budgets in coming weeks.

Harford County sent all eight board members, including its student representative, plus Superintendent Ray R. Keech -- for an estimated $21,000, or almost $2,400 a person -- to the National School Boards Association conference the first weekend of April, according to Donald R. Morrison, school system spokesman.

Harford's tab for the trip was the highest of the four Baltimore-area counties. In February, the Harford schools had to return $3 million to the county government because of a shortfall in county revenues.

"It just bothers me that they feel they can spend this kind of money to send nine people," Harford Councilman Mitch Shank said. "I would like to see what those nine people got out of the conference."

In Howard County, all five board members -- but not its student associate -- attended the conference at an estimated cost of $9,745, or about $1,950 a person, according to spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

The school board has a $10,000 budget to cover conference expenses, and in the past, members regularly have attended the annual conference.

"At this point it would seem kind of ridiculous that all five members go," said Howard County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga. As a member of the council last year, Mr. Feaga approved the school board's budget, including its allocation for conferences and travel.

The trip costs total less than a tenth of a percent of the Howard schools $217 million budget, but Mr. Feaga and other members of the county government may point to the expense as an example of needed cuts from next year's budget.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is expected to release his proposed operating budget for next year tomorrow, and it could call for trimming the Howard schools' $234 million budget request by as much as $6 million.

Baltimore County sent nine of its 12 board members to the conference, including the student representative -- as well as school Superintendent Stuart Berger and a school system attorney -- for about $1,500 a person, according to estimates provided by school system spokesman Charles Herndon.

But Baltimore County school board President Paul Cunningham, who attended the conference for the sixth time, said that although the trip costs were reasonable, he and other board members will reimburse the school system for a portion of them -- as he has done in the past.

"I think board members are very careful and very frugal about this whole process," Mr. Cunningham said.

The $17,000 that Baltimore County spent on the conference is a small amount of the system's current $560 million, but John D. O'Neill, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association based in Towson, questioned the trip.

"They don't have to go outside the state for it," Mr. O'Neill said. Maryland's school jurisdictions are so varied, they could put on their own seminars, he said.

In fact, area school board members also attend in-state conferences at far less expense, Ms. Caplan of Howard said.

"This national conference is [the Howard school board's] only major trip each year."

Three of Carroll County's five school board members attended -- two at school system expense -- as well as Superintendent Brian Lockard, at a total cost of $4,814, according to William Hyde, assistant superintendent for administration.

The Baltimore City school system sent one board member, Charles L. Maker, at a cost of $1,723, according to spokeswoman Donna Franks.

Anne Arundel County sent no one this year. "It wasn't even a decision," said school board President Michael A. Pace. "We can't be sending our members to San Francisco when we have teachers who are digging into their own pockets to pay for materials."

The exchange of information at the conference is worth the expense of sending five board members, said Susan J. Cook, Howard County school board chairwoman.

"It's cost-saving in the long run if we can learn from someone else's mistakes or duplicate a successful program," she said.

The conference also was a valuable "team-building experience" for the school board, which has two new members this year, Ms. Cook said.

"It's not common" for a school board to send all its members to the conference, said Harold P. Seamon, deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association, which sponsored the gathering. "More boards certainly don't do it than do."

But sending the entire board is a good idea, he said, because more people can attend more workshops and learn about cost-saving measures.

The conference began April 1 and ended April 4. The annual conference rotates between San Francisco, Orlando, Fla., Anaheim, Calif., and New Orleans.

Workshop titles included: "How to be an effective advocate for the school board in the state capital"; "Keeping violence away from the public schools"; "The role of technology in school reform"; and "Evaluating your superintendent more effectively."

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