When perk turns PR problem

April 24, 1995

For the professional worker, an annual convention with his or her peers can be a prized perquisite of the job. It can serve as a refreshing break from the daily grind and as a source of contacts and information on industry trends.

One such meeting is the yearly conference of the National School Boards Association. The NSBA convention, held on a rotating basis in San Francisco, New Orleans, Orlando and Anaheim, might possess even more of an air of perkdom because many school board members are unpaid volunteers. These are folks who willingly put their shoulders to the public weal, so why not let them enjoy a few days at Disney World -- when they can escape their seminars and workshops, of course?

However, there is a question of whether school board members in the Baltimore region have abused this perk. Several area boards recently sent most or all of their members to the city of cable cars for the NSBA convention. Nine of Baltimore County's 12 board members, plus Superintendent Stuart Berger and a school system lawyer, traveled to San Francisco; so did all eight from Harford County, plus Superintendent Ray Keech; three of five from Carroll County, plus Superintendent Brian Lockard; and all five from Howard County.

School officials and other advocates of these trips point out that the cost to each school system is a fraction of its yearly budget. Proponents also argue that the annual conference imparts valuable information and promotes camaraderie among members of particular boards.

These positions have some validity. Yet they overlook the public relations problem that is created when too many board members make the excursion. The unhappy result? This year's trip has become loaded with negative symbolism at a time when everyone from parents to educators bemoans the impact of streamlined government budgets on school spending.

We would suggest that just as the convention site rotates annually, a few members of each board could take turns going to the conference and, on their return, brief their colleagues.

School boards shouldn't skip these conferences altogether. The Anne Arundel board did so this year for budget reasons (although it would be a mistake to cut itself off from industry news for a couple years' running.) Still, school administrations might better serve their own purposes and avoid sending the wrong signal to taxpayers by becoming a little less generous with this perk.

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