Topics/Categories

Get The Nerve in your in-box every weekday morning!

An $85,000 “Learning” Trip for Richland 2 Principals

Richland School District 2 spent about $85,000 to send 31 principals and other administrators on a five-day “learning” trip to a Florida resort in July, The Nerve was informed last week in response to an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request.

In a written reply, Theresa Riley, spokeswoman for Richland 2 Superintendent Katie Brochu, said the group attended the “Principals’ Academy,” which she described as an “experience providing members with personal and collective learning opportunities focused on the work of creating and sustaining engagement-centered schools.”

Twenty-eight principals and three other district administrators went on the trip, which ran from July 17-21 in Naples, Fla., Riley said. Brochu did not participate; the district-level administrators who went on the trip were Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Washington; Sue Mellette, chief academic officer; and Nancy Gregory, executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development, according to Riley.

The event was held at the LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort on the Gulf of Mexico, which, according to the hotel's website, is “one of Florida’s finest resort hotels … offering guests a rare chance to experience South Florida’s subtropical beauty from front-row seats.”

The academy, formally called the “Marilyn Hohmann Principals Academy,” is organized by the nonprofit Schlechty Center in Louisville, Ky., which describes itself on its website as “helping leaders transform school districts from bureaucratic organizations into learning organizations.”

Riley said this was the first year the district participated in the conference.

For the collective $85,000 tab, participants were expected to “get clear about what they must know and be able to do to transform schools into learning organizations in which the core business is designing engaging work for students,” according to the Schlechty Center site.

The precise total cost and expense breakdowns of the trip are unknown. The Nerve last month submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of all expense records per participant, but was informed last week by Riley that a $214.30 deposit was required for the documents.

The Nerve asked Riley to waive or reduce the fee but did not receive a response by publication of this story.

“I don’t want to knock our principals and administrators, but it’s a colossal waste of money,” said Lynn Roth, a Richland 2 parent and a frequent vocal critic of the district's spending, when contacted last week by The Nerve about the Florida trip. “If they want to get that same rejuvenated feeling, they can take their own vacation.”

Besides the cost, Roth also questioned the purpose of the trip, contending that administrators could be taught more practical skills. As an example, she said administrators and teachers at the new Muller Road Middle School in Richland 2 largely haven’t been taught instructional uses of iPad tablets that were made available to all students at the beginning of the school year.

“They’re picking this one-size-fits-all professional development,” Roth said.

A spokeswoman at the Schlechty Center did not respond to a phone message last week from The Nerve seeking comment.

When asked by The Nerve to justify the $85,000 expenditure, Riley gave the following answer in her written response:

“We are building a Richland Two framework to provide a clear direction for all of our resources, energy, and focus. This framework provides a common language with parents, students, employees and community. The benefits of creating an environment that allows teachers and administrators to focus on designing engaging work for students include increased achievement, increased satisfaction, and reduced drop rates.”

Mirroring language used by the Schlechty Center, Riley said principals who attended the Florida trip will “clarify their beliefs about schools in order to articulate a vision that others find compelling and that inspires others,” and also will “learn new strategies for mobilizing others on behalf of the vision.”

The average annual salary of a Richland 2 teacher is $46,975; with benefits, it comes to $63,520, according to Riley. Based on those figures, the district could have hired 1.3 teachers, with benefits, for one year for the cost of the trip.

The registration fee for the trip was $1,700 per participant, which included training materials and conference meals; or $1,400 per participant if the district is a designated “standard-bearer” district, according to the Schlechty Center website.

It’s unclear what rate Richland 2 was charged for registration fees. On the low end, it works out collectively to $43,400, or slightly more than half of the overall cost of the trip as cited by Riley; on the high end, it comes out to $52,700 or 62 percent of the total.

The room rate at the LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort for the participants was $135 per night, according to the Schlechty Center website. Riley said the administrators spent four nights at the conference; the total lodging bill would have been at least $16,740 if all 31 participants had their own rooms.

Riley didn’t respond by publication of this story about whether administrators had their own rooms. She said "expenses for four nights at the conference location" were paid with “federal funds designated for professional development,” though she didn’t specify if other district funds were used to cover costs of the trip.

The Nerve on Aug. 19 submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Richland 2 asking for all expense records for each administrator who went on the trip. The request included a breakdown of the names of the administrators; travel, lodging, food, supply/copying and entertainment expenses; and daily itineraries for each participant.

Riley responded in a Sept. 12 letter that The Nerve would have to pay a $214.30 deposit for the requested records, estimating that it would require about eight hours of staff time and copying costs of 5 cents per page.

When it comes to revealing specifics about its expenditures, Richland District 2, which has a $199 million budget for this fiscal year, has not been known as a champion of transparency.

The school board last month changed its mind and voted to post detailed district expenditures online - becoming the last district out of 85 statewide to agree to do so. A state budget proviso set a deadline of the end of the 2009-10 school year for all districts to create online check registers.

Richland 2 officials repeatedly said they would do so only if the S.C. Comptroller General's Office, which has been pushing the transparency project for school districts and local municipalities, would pay one-time set-up costs and annual recurring expenses.

R.J. Shealy, spokesman for Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, told The Nerve in May that his agency hadn’t provided funding to any other school district in the state to set up online check registers.

Roth was so angered by Richland 2’s refusal to post expenditures online that she filed a Freedom of Information Act request for details on every district expense over $100 since July 1, 2010.

“It’s going to cost me a whole lot of money,” Roth told The Nerve last week, noting that the district wants to charge her more than $600 for that information and several other Freedom of Information Act requests.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

K-12 Local Government Transparency