From July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015, Fort Worth school trustees have collectively spent thousands more in mileage and out-of-town travel trips than their peers did annually in almost a decade, a Star-Telegram review of trip expenses shows.
From 2006 to 2014, trustees’ collective annual tab was $45,000 on average. But from July 1 to June 30, the current board incurred more than $82,000 in travel expenses to attend conferences and workshops in places like Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; and Orlando, Fla., according to registration, hotel, airline ticket and meal receipts provided to the Star-Telegram under the Texas Public Information Act.
About $24,000 of the sum was incurred by the school board president alone, records show.
The boost in out-of-town travel is largely due to a wider participation by Fort Worth trustees on state and national initiatives aimed at urban school district reforms, several trustees said.
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“I definitely believe that we’re putting Fort Worth back on the local and national map,” board President Jacinto Ramos said.
Supporters said the travel tab reflects trustees’ commitment to student learning and honing leadership skills.
“Fort Worth has begun to assume more of a leadership role in the state and nationally and that will be reflected in travel,” said Cathy Mincberg, president and CEO of the Center for Reform of School Systems, a Houston organization that provides training and support to U.S. boards.
“We support board members bringing leadership to other education organizations,” Mincberg said.
Some critics, however, wondered whether the leadership training could be pursued at lower cost to the taxpayer.
“I just never spent that kind of money,” former Councilman Bert Williams said.
“I’d be curious to hear how cocktail parties in D.C. help the reading proficiency of fourth- and third-graders,” Ross Kecseg, North Texas director for Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, an Austin-based conservative group that keeps tabs on local government spending. “It’s elitism masquerading as ‘public service.’ ”
Ramos’ was the highest trip-expense tab of any Fort Worth trustee since 2006, records show. From July 1, 2014, to June 30, Ramos incurred $24,054.35 in expenses, district records show. Of that, $20,253.85 was for out-of-town trips; $3,242.50 for conference registration fees; and a requested $558 was for in local mileage reimbursements, records showed.
When he ran for a spot on the school board, Ramos said he pledged to voters to be visible at school-related functions.
“I’m being intentional about that so young people and staff know that I’m accessible,” he said. “I’m really touchable.”
He’s attended boys regional soccer competitions and band events, he said. His goal is to show his support for Fort Worth students and their families, he said.
“My perspective is that the district’s constituents are benefiting from my travel,” Ramos said. “I’m taking my role very seriously and investing my personal time to go and grow as a board member.”
Trying to be frugal
Of the nine-member board, Trustees Matthew Avila and Ann Sutherland had the lowest charges, expense records show.
“I try to make my travel arrangements be as inexpensive as possible because they are district funds”’ said Avila, who is president and CEO of a local construction contracting company.
“I just don’t like the idea of spending a bunch of money unnecessarily.”
Sutherland, a former legislative budget analyst and teacher, spent less than $2,000 on travel and registration fees. Avila spent about $3,523.64.
Trustees Tobi Jackson, T.A. Sims and Judy Needham spent $2,000 to $4,000 on travel and registration fees to conferences. Jackson also received a local mileage reimbursement of more than $7,500.
“I drive 800 to 1,000 miles a month,” Jackson said. “I’m out in the community, engaging with parents and community leaders. I’m elected to promote the youth in Fort Worth.”
Ramos said that his role as board president has demanded that he travel to conferences and other district-related events. The juvenile probation officer in 2014 made trips to attend conferences in places like Washington, D.C.: Orlando; Milwuakee; and New Orleans, expense records show.
“I can only speak for myself but I believe that my growth as a board member was accelerated due to the traveling ... so much so that I got the [board] president’s role in two years on the board,” Ramos said.
In early February, he was in Washington for an Advocacy Institute Conference sponsored by the National School Boards Association. A few days later, he was in San Antonio for the State High School Mariachi Competition. Two days later, on Feb. 10, he was back in Washington. Less than one month later, he was in Austin for another mariachi competition. He also attended a boys regional soccer tournament in April and a Las Vegas conference in early June.
“That’s a lot of globetrotting,” said Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice, an Austin watchdog group that tracks corporate influence on legislative priorities. “The question is: What are you getting for it?”
Trustees who travel most say the trips allow them to network with cutting-edge education leaders and better support a public education reform agenda. For example, Ramos and Trustees Ashley Paz and Christene Moss have gone on trips to promote the presidential initiative My Brother’s Keeper, which has been adopted by 60 leaders of the nation’s largest school systems, including Fort Worth. Its goal is to expand minority boys’ access to better preschools and advanced classes, and to try to prevent grade retention, suspensions and expulsions. The program has created greater local awareness of the struggles of socio-economically disadvantaged youngsters.
Moss, a retired nurse, spent about $13,500 on travel and registration fees.
“If you never leave your own school district, you really don’t know what’s going on or how students are achieving in other areas of the state or the country,” Moss said.
Trustee Norman Robbins said the district’s representation on national intiatives gives it a chance to enhance its national profile. (Robbins’ travel and conference registration expenses amounted to about $3,900.)
“For years, I don’t know that we [the school district] were active in those organizations and we suffered as a result,” said Robbins, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth.
If trustees do not take part, Robbins said, “you’re not able to shape the discussion; you’re not able to get Fort Worth the attention that you might be able to garner otherwise.”
Paz, in her 2013 run for a seat on the board, heavily criticized the travel record of her opponent, longtime Trustee Juan Rangel. Her campaign distributed mailers to the public that said that Rangel had taken “over 40 trips at district expense and charged the FWISD more than $40,000 in travel since 2009.” That amount, the flier said , was “thousands of dollars more than any other board member.”
Because of this, Paz, who is an event planner, said she has been more cognizant of her travel spending while on the board. She reported expenses of $11,807 from July 1, 2014, to June 30, records show.
State law requires newly elected trustees to complete at least three hours of continuing education within 60 days of election or appointment to the board. It also requires that experienced board members complete up to 10 hours a year.
Paz, in her first year on the board, said she learned quickly that a lot of the state-based training was “expensive and not relevant to what we do.” So she looked for alternatives.
“I was basically going to go to one conference a year of all these big organizations to see which one worked for me,” Paz said.
She said she then decided to attend conferences sponsored by the Council of the Great City Schools, which includes major urban school systems nationwide. It was the organization that adopted a pledge to support My Brother’s Keeper. In July 2014, Paz attended a White House kickoff of a major expansion of the program.
“That’s what brought My Brother’s Keeper to Fort Worth,” Paz said. “It’s an incredible amount of data that we would not have access to otherwise.”
She acknowledged that residents have approached her with questions about her travel costs. “They say: ‘Ashley, you’re in D.C. a lot. What is this?’ My response is telling them all of the work that I’m doing with those organizations.”
Rangel, who is contemplating a 2016 comeback to a seat on the board, said it was “ironic” that Paz had criticized him when she had spent thousands on annual travel. Rangel spent anywhere from $4,350 to $12,600 in annual travel from 2006 to 2013, records show.
“It’s hypocrisy at its worst,” he said.