Proposed Jefferson Parish School Board travel restriction defeated by well-traveled members _lowres

 

Early last year, a newly elected slate of Jefferson Parish School Board members voted to ditch the previous board’s restrictions on how much members could travel at the public’s expense.

The result: Board members in 2015 spent more than $66,000 on out-of-town conferences and other trips, which was more than triple the annual average over the prior four years.

Some board members this week proposed reining back travel spending once again. But they were overruled Tuesday night by a five-member majority.

Records show the five members who voted against new restrictions were also the biggest travelers last year. Each of them accounted for more in travel costs than any of the members who voted for the limits, according to an analysis of district records.

Cedric Floyd, who was the board’s president in 2015, led the pack, racking up almost $20,000 in expenses that records linked to him individually. Larry Dale spent the least: less than $50.

Floyd and some of the others who voted against a motion by Melinda Bourgeois seeking to reduce travel spending defended the trips as vital opportunities for continuing education.

Bourgeois and her allies didn’t dispute that traveling to conferences can be valuable, but they said being more choosy about what trips to take on the public’s dime is simply good government.

Bourgeois — a first-term member whose candidacy was supported by the parish’s business community — proposed requiring School Board members to get approval from the board if they want the district to cover expenses for trips to out-of-town gatherings not held by the state or national associations of school boards.

She argued that attending Louisiana and National School Boards Association meetings fulfills board members’ legal obligation to stay educated on how best to do their jobs.

Her regular board allies, Dale and Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge, concurred, as did Mark Morgan, who does not belong to either board bloc. But Floyd, Ricky Johnson, Marion “Coach” Bonura, Ray St. Pierre and Melinda Doucet — all members of a bloc supported by the parish teachers’ union — opposed her proposal, with Johnson and Floyd being the most vocal.

Remarking that Bourgeois owns a travel agency and can go wherever she wants, Johnson said being able to attend as many conferences as he can helps board newcomers like himself learn more about how best to aid the district’s children.

“Cutting someone off who wants to learn to help the students is unfair,” Johnson said. “Think about what you’re doing.”

Meanwhile, Floyd noted that the district budgeted $40,000 for travel by board members for the fiscal year that began July 1. There was no line item for trip expenditures for the previous fiscal year.

He said the $40,000 total has not been exceeded, so there is no problem, despite the sharp increase in travel spending during calendar 2015.

“We set a travel budget; we’re consistent with that,” Floyd said. “Vote against this.”

The roots of Tuesday’s dispute date back to 2012. That’s when a board with a business community-backed majority voted to limit members to one paid trip outside of the New Orleans area annually, except for the panel’s president and vice president, who were allowed two trips.

Things changed after the 2014 elections, when Bonura, Doucet and Johnson won seats that had been held by business-backed candidates, reclaiming a majority for the union-supported bloc.

Soon after taking office in 2015, the new board rescinded the travel restrictions. Expenses for trips then shot up by almost 3,000 percent from 2014, when the district spent $2,137 on board travel.

All the board members had their trip to a retreat in Baton Rouge last year covered, and all but three attended a state School Boards Association gathering in Shreveport. However, some members traveled much more often.

Floyd, Johnson and Bonura individually accounted for about $19,800, $16,400 and $12,100 in trip expenses last year, respectively.

Floyd and Johnson traveled to Phoenix for the Council of Urban Boards of Education’s annual conference in early October and to Washington, D.C., for a National Alliance of Black School Educators gathering in November, records show.

Floyd and Johnson planned to attend a National Institute for Excellence in Teaching conference in Los Angeles in March, but only the latter made it, records show.

Both then joined Bonura in Salt Lake City for a National Federation of Urban and Suburban Districts gathering in mid-October, according to records. Bonura, a former teacher and sports coach, later headed solo to the National Athletic Directors Conference in Orlando in December.

To round out the union-backed faction, St. Pierre and Doucet combined for roughly $8,000 in travel expenses — $2,500 and $5,500, respectively.

The other four members together accounted for $2,534 in individual travel expenses, ranging from $47 for Dale to $1,040 for Bosarge, with another $7,000-plus in unspecified travel expenses labeled as applying to all board members or a group of them.

Dale, whose only board trip last year was to the Baton Rouge retreat, explained his minimalist approach to travel this way: “It’s not about going places,” he said. “It’s about building an education system for our children.”