School travel expenses misleading

By From page A1 | August 11, 2014

A recent news article questioning school conference travel expenses prompted investigation into El Dorado County school district expenses. The most recent data published on Ed-Data indicates that nine out of the 15 school districts in El Dorado County were above the state-wide average in 2012-2013 in conference and travel expenditures, some by as much as three times the state-wide average per Average Daily Attendance.

While some school districts may abuse taxpayer money with regard to staying at expensive hotels and unnecessary travel, many small districts have higher costs because they have a low ADA, and one conference attended by one teacher or administrator can eat up a travel budget.

The state-wide average for conference and travel expenditures is $24 ADA for high school districts; $23 ADA for elementary school districts and $22 ADA for unified school districts. In El Dorado County, eight out of the 15 school districts have fewer than 1,000 ADA and the majority of those have fewer than 500.

“The cost of conferences is the same no matter what the size of the district is,” said Grant Coffin, superintendent/principal of Indian Diggings. In 2012-2013 Indian Diggings’ ADA was 18 and their travel/conference expenditures were $47 per ADA. “I went to one conference that year,” said Coffin, “and I paid for my own meals. Part of our travel expenses are also driving to the county Office of Education for weekly meetings, but I don’t usually even claim that mileage.”

Eric Bonniksen, superintendent of Placerville Union School District, agreed with Coffin. “Some things, like the cost of training and purchasing materials is standard and the size of the school district doesn’t change that. With a smaller ADA, it can look like they are spending much more. It can be cost prohibitive for smaller districts to participant in some programs — ones that larger districts, with a bigger ADA pool to draw, from can fund.”

Silver Fork School District spent $76 ADA for conferences and travel in 2012-2013, but the total spent was $745 with an ADA of 10 students — the cost of one conference for one teacher and travel costs throughout the year.

Placerville Union’s conference/training expenses in 2012-2103 were $47 per ADA with an ADA of 1,204 students. “We implemented a large training that year for a new program, Guided Language Acquisition by Design, that used about 50 percent of our training budget,” said Bonniksen. The six-day training for each teacher brought a trainer to the school district, considerably less expensive than sending teachers to a training, but substitutes for teachers attending the training, the cost of the trainer and materials were part of the budget.

Other small districts around the state also have higher than average conference/travel costs: Alpine County with an ADA of 93 in 2012-2013 spent $233 per ADA, Arena Union Elementary/Pt. Arena School District in Mendocino County with an ADA of 319 spent $139 ADA and Sierra/Plumas Joint Unified School District spent $85 ADA with an ADA of 365.

Not every conference or training cost is the same from year to year. This fiscal year, Placerville budgeted less for training/conferences because only a one-day refresher was required for the GLAD program. For other years, such as last year, with a new state adopted math curriculum, Common Core Standards and new Local Area Funding Formula, school districts have to have training in order to implement new programs.

El Dorado Union High School District, with an ADA of 6,424 in 2012-2013, spent $51 per ADA in conference/travel expenditures, and it will probably do it again.

“It’s imperative that we invest in our people — they are the ones standing in front of the students,” said Baldev Johal, associate superintendent of Business Services for EDUHSD. “With the Common Core Standards, there is a new direction in testing and the new textbooks all have a digital component. This is a wholesale change in how we deliver education, and it requires a lot of training to make sure that teachers have the skills and knowledge they need.”

Some conferences are almost mandatory, such as those providing training for new financial and reporting regulations. Often school boards are sent to conferences to learn about new law or regulations that will affect their district.

“We believe that it is critical to ensure that our board members are attending training that provides updated information around governance, new state laws and regulations and promising research-based practices that will assist our district to move forward,” said Kevin Monsma, superintendent of Pollock Pines and Silver Fork school districts.

Regional training, such as the Common Core Standards training at the El Dorado County Office of Education, cuts down on travel and training costs for all, and districts often use a train-the-trainer approach to further cut costs.

“We often sent three or four teachers for training, and they come back and train the rest of the staff,” said Johal. “The district is moving heavily into the digital component of education using Chromebooks and Google Education. We are doing a measured approach, but it takes time to train all of our teachers.”

Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.

Wendy Schultz

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