Richland 2 Administrators Take Another $80,000-Plus Junket to a Florida Resort

September 25, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Florida ResortFor Richland School District 2 administrators, July might be their favorite month of the year.

In a repeat of last year, the district spent more than $80,000 to send a group of district employees – mostly principals and other administrators – to a Gulf Coast resort for what officials described as a “leadership” conference that spanned five days in July, according to information provided to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The total tab for 48 employees to attend the July 15-19 conference at the LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in Naples, Fla., was $82,531.62, district records show. That included $45,600 in registration costs, $19,879.60 in hotel costs at a reduced group rate of $152.90 per night, and $17,052.02 in other travel costs.

In comparison, the district spent about $85,000 to send 31 principals and other administrators to the same resort for a five-day conference in July 2011, according to information the district provided then to The Nerve under the Freedom of Information Act.

Although there were 17 more participants from the district on this year’s trip, the total cost was less compared to last year in part because the registration costs – $800 per person for a billed “Academy of Innovative Leaders” and a “Teacher Leader Academy,” and $1,400 per person for a “Principals Academy” – were less than last year’s registration costs, according to district spokesman Ken Blackstone.

For both trips, The Nerve requested copies of all expense records. Both times, the district provided summaries of the costs but requested a deposit of more than $200 to provide more detailed records. The Nerve declined to pay the deposit in both requests.

The starting salary and benefits of a new teacher with no experience in Richland 2 is about $44,500, according to Blackstone, so the money spent on the two trips could have been used to hire three new teachers.

Richland 2 Superintendent Katie Brochu did not go on either trip, though she has pushed the annual events since becoming the district’s head in 2010, Blackstone said.

At least three of Brochu’s top administrators made both trips: Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Washington; Sue Mellette, chief academic officer; and Nancy Gregory, executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development, district records show.

Twenty-eight principals, four assistant principals and 10 teachers also attended this year’s event, according to district records.

The LaPlaya resort, located on the Gulf of Mexico, bills itself on its website as the “Top Spa Resort in North America,” and the “#1 Golf Resort in Florida in 2010+2011,”citing reviews by a Conde Nast travel publication.

Both conferences were organized by the nonprofit Schlechty Center in Louisville, Ky., which, according to its website, says principals should “view themselves as leaders of leaders,” and superintendents should “view themselves as intellectual and moral leaders who transform problems into opportunities and encourage others to seize these opportunities.”

The Schlechty Center did not return a phone message from The Nerve seeking comment for this story.

Contacted recently, Lynn Roth, a Richland 2 parent and a frequent critic of district spending, told The Nerve that she can’t understand why it is necessary for the district to spend tens of thousands of tax dollars annually for a training conference at a Florida resort.

“They’re pushing more and more kids to learn online,” she said. “Why isn’t it good enough for the teachers?”

Roth also said the Schlechty Center has sent trainers to Richland 2, noting she sat through a recent training session.

“Is it all that great?” Roth asked. “No.”

But a group of five Richland 2 principals and assistant principals, along with an elementary teacher, whom Blackstone arranged to be interviewed, told The Nerve in a recent meeting at district headquarters that Schlechty Center sessions are far superior to other training conferences.

“The Schlechty Center is probably the most well-researched group in the nation about transforming education,” said Lori Marrero, principal of Muller Road Middle School.

Malinda Taylor, assistant principal at E.L. Wright Middle School, said instead of the standard hand-outs provided at most other training conferences, the Schlechty Center’s training is a “more real-world look at your kids and what they need.”

Asked whether taxpayer money was being wasted with the trips, Jessica Agee, a third-grade teacher at the district’s Center For Knowledge, replied, “I work really hard to prove those taxpayer dollars are being spent really well.”

Although both conferences were held at a resort, Langford Elementary School Principal Kaseena Jackson said participants didn’t treat this year’s event as a vacation.

“It wasn’t like it was 9 to 12,” she said. “We were there all day. At 7:30 (p.m.) we were there at dinner talking to other colleagues.”

During last fiscal year, the district spent $2.3 million on professional development, $281,465 of which was from the district’s general fund, and the balance of slightly more than $2 million covered with state and federal funds, Blackstone said.

The district’s total general-fund budget for this fiscal year is $213.9 million, according to Blackstone.

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