When it comes to reimbursing state employees for education costs, the Texas Transportation Department is far more generous than other agencies.
After reporting this month that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission paid a top aide’s $97,020 MBA tuition, The Texas Tribune took a closer look at how much state agencies reimburse employees for education costs.
Of the $23.8 million that agencies spent from 2002 to part of January 2015 on tuition, conferences and other educational programs for employees, close to half went to Transportation Department staffers, according to data from the Texas comptroller’s office.
Spokeswoman Veronica Beyer could not explain why the agency spends so much more on staffer education. She said it helps attract and retain the most talented staff.
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“Investing in this professional and educational development of our best and brightest employees is valuable to the state as it assists our agency in meeting our goals and the transportation needs of Texas,” she said.
The agency did not provide the Tribune with details on the types of education its employees were receiving at taxpayer expense. However, an analysis of the $10.6 million total shows that the highway agency spends a lot of money at private schools.
About $2.7 million of the tuition reimbursements paid for employee education at the private St. Edward’s University in Austin. Beyer could not explain what St. Edward’s offered that couldn’t be obtained at a cheaper alternative like a public college or university.
Mischelle Diaz, a St. Edward’s spokeswoman, said most of the tuition money that the Transportation Department has spent at St. Edward’s — about 75 percent — was for undergraduates in its New College Program, a flexible degree program for working students interested in completing their bachelor’s degrees.
Diaz said one of the majors offered through the program is public safety management, which could attract agency employees.
“It’s a really popular program that we’re very proud of at St. Edward’s,” Diaz said.
The other 25 percent is going toward graduate degrees, Diaz said.
Other private schools used by employees included Park University and Concordia University in Austin, Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, LeTourneau University in Longview and University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
The Department of Aging and Disability Services, with some 17,500 employees, has spent about $3.4 million on tuition reimbursements since 2002, the second-highest total. Most of that went toward required staff development and training, department spokeswoman Cecilia Cavuto said.
“That’s really not a true reimbursement — it’s more of a training contract,” Cavuto said.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has spent about $519,000 on education costs. It has some 12,500 workers, about the same as the highway agency.
The HHSC employee who received the prepaid Master of Business Administration, Casey Haney, a deputy chief of staff, resigned last week because he felt news about the tuition was becoming a “distraction” for the agency. He has agreed to repay the state for the tuition cost.
This month, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek announced that the agency will change the way employees receive taxpayer-funded education and training.
Not all agencies offer tuition reimbursement. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not offer tuition reimbursement to its 37,000 employees, spokesman Jason Clark said.
Department employees who want to complete a master’s degree in criminal justice can compete for two scholarships offered each year by Sam Houston State University. Recipients this year were Capt. William Wheat, who works at the Beto Training Academy in Palestine, and Capt. Angela Chevalier, who works at the Ramsey Training Academy in Rosharon.
To qualify for the scholarships, employees must have an undergraduate degree, provide two letters of recommendation, have at least five years’ experience with the department and have good performance evaluations, Clark said. Those accepted must maintain a 3.3 grade-point average and complete the program in two years.
“It is a great opportunity for staff members who are invested in criminal justice careers to expand their education. The program helps them to meet their personal and professional goals with the agency,” Clark said.