Macon County School Board Travel Club (MCSBTC)
More recent update, 19Jul2014: Al.com provides an analysis into each school system as to their federal, state, and local tax revenue and the amount spent per student.
Update: My critical letter of our Macon County School Board members traveling about the nation spending money and far what? We still have two failing schools!
How would you like to visit San Francisco, Boston, San Diego, Orange Beach, Biloxi, and Destin, Florida on someone else’s dime? Included is airfare, accumulation of sky miles, shuttle and cab services, room service and prime rib dinners, and stay in a resort most Macon County residents can only wish for a once-in-a-life-time $330 one-night stay.
Spouses are welcome of course. Turn that expense paid trip into a paid get-away with your spouse or guest. Meals enjoyed by spouses are not reimbursable. Vehicular travel for spouses and guests will not be out of pocket because reimbursed mileage is for the vehicle regardless of the number of occupants.
Enjoy all of the high-end hotel and resort amenities and visit such popular tourist attractions as the San Diego Zoo, ride the famous trolley car and visit Alcatraz while in San Francisco, play golf on some of the finest courses available, play some slot machines, or take in the Boston Symphony Orchestra one evening.
Within 27 months, our Macon County Board of Education (MCBOE) has enjoyed travel to all of the forenamed cities on the backs’ of the taxpayers. Justified by: “Board members have limited travel that deals with conferences for them to earn certifications and designations.”wrote Macon County Board of Education (MCBOE) Superintendent Jacqueline Brooks on September 6, 2011.
I immediately see Brooks’ statement to be misleading and protective.
Following the ethics special legislative session in 2010 all state employees beginning in May 2011 must watch a 55-minute ethics video either on-line or with a requested DVD from the Ethics Commission at no cost to the member.
Moreover, there were no specific school board training requirements until Jan 1, 2013.
Brooks’ use of “limited” which implies some limitation or restriction. The only means of MCBOE limitation I see is personal choice, certainly not fiscal based.
MCBOE member Ms. Katy Campbell has been an officer of the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) for several years and there is little travel reimbursement to her by the MCBOE. Therefore, MCBOE President Theodore Samuel and members Mary Hooks, Elnora Love, and Karey Thompson will be the focus of this exposé.
“State law did not require mandatory training for school board members prior to the School Board Governance Improvement Act [HB431, Act 2012-221].” responded Dennis Heard of the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) via email. The corresponding administrative code authored by Dr. Pouncy may be read via this link. A memorandum including an Affirmation Certificate and a Sample Model Code of Conduct from Dr. Thomas Bice, State Superintendent of Education, of October 22, 2012 gives the feel of abuse requiring a legislature "Emergency Rule" passed on October 11, 2012.
During my meeting with Dr. Pouncey, ALSDE Chief of Staff, and Heard, Pouncey also stated there was no school board required continuing education credits (CEC) before January 1, 2013.
During our 20-minute meeting, Heard said some financially strapped school systems permit a board member to attend national conferences while other systems permit all to attend. I got the response “They may not be able to do so.”, or in similar words, when I asked Ms. Deborah Biggers, MCBOE attorney, “Why not send one board member to the national and state conventions to brief the public and other board members?” This meeting with attorney Biggers at 1:00 P.M. on 30Sep2013 at 501 South School Street, Tuskegee was suddenly changed the day before from "before 1:00 P.M." with Brooks; I was told Brooks was having car problems and therefore unable to attend the meeting.
Conveniently, section 2.4.1 of the MCBOE Policy Manual provides for training with “State or national school board association event … or other Board member development opportunities…” never giving any indication of the frequency of travel and the luxurious accommodations.
Each member of the school board should understand its requirements and compensation as provided by Alabama Code § 16-8-5.
Believing travel to be a right of office was wrong then and now. Apparently, similar secretive travel clubs exist in other counties which in part may have generated the concerns of "stewardship" within the law and the Code of Conduct. The frequent, costly, and for the most part unknown extensive travel may have been some of the justification of the School Board Governance Improvement Act and inpart instructing the State School Superintendent along with the Alabama School Board Association to jointly establish training. According to Dr. Pouncey no more than two of the six required annual training credits may be from out-of-state.
Without new local measureable, restrictive, and transparent measures in section 2.4.1, the MCBOE may not give up their old ways in its use of local, state, and federal money; they’ll only be able to receive credit for two of their four, six, or more out-of-state CEC’s.
There are only six of our sixty-seven counties with a lower median family income than Macon County. We have two failing schools, Notasulga and Tuskegee Institute Middle School, similarly recorded for school year 2011-2012 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) . Alabama per-student spending decreased $1,242 since 2008 reported “The Advisor” published by the Retirement Systems Administration of Alabama; or a 20.1% decrease state wide only second to Oklahoma’s decrease of 22.8%.
In 2013, a $50,000 homeowner paid $255 in county property tax, according to Macon County Revenue Commissioner Ed Corbitt. He told me during a meeting in his office on December 10, 2013 of the collected tax $160 or 62% went to the MCBOE; further explaining roughly 2/3 for infrastructure bond payments and 1/3 to the system’s general fund. Furthermore, he added county residents paid $1.2 million to the MCBOE system’s general fund for their own designated line items.
www.AlabamaSchoolConnection.org provides the ALSDE 2014 MCBOE spreadsheet which shows $26.5 million in total revenue and $29.9 million total expenditures. for services including instructional services, operating and maintenance, sport and student activities, transportation, food services, administrative services, and travel by the MCBOE. According to this site, MCBOE is spending $3 million more in 2014 than provided by its revenue stream.
We know spoken word and actual events in the political arena is often at odds. Samuel reported by The Tuskegee News on page 7 of the June 20, 2013 edition to have said in front of the Alabama State House “Macon County boys and girls are suffering…” and the article continues, “He said they cannot cut students so they must cut teachers and programs.” Samuel’s message that day was from one side of his mouth.
Teachers and programs were cut and cut hard. Eleven teacher units, 1.0 Career Tech Director, and 1.5 librarian units were removed from the system’s FY2014 budget. Additionally, program cuts such as $4,000 for “Classroom Instructional Support, and Student Materials” and $6,500 in textbooks did not slow down the other MCSB members either.
Additionally, a previous loss of three teacher units took place between the FY2012 and FY2013 budgets bringing the total to 14 less teacher units within two budget years.
MCBOE being responsible for their budget and best use of our tax dollars joined Samuel, who wants to serve yet another six-year term, on two expensive junkets just days of his state house proclamation. Collectively, they selfishly spent $5,700 for a three day trip to Orange Beach and another $5,700 TWO WEEKS later on a 3-day trip to the 2,400-acre “#1 resort on Florida’s beautiful Emerald Coast” Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Florida. Visit http://www.sandestin.com to see what you paid for and then ask how our schoolchildren benefitted by this one $5,700 expenditure?
Our MCBOE trips include conferences hosted by the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) and National School Board Association (NSBA). The AASB annually hosts three state conferences: spring, summer, and winter. Hooks, Samuel, and Thompson attended all three state conventions in 2012; Love attended two of three. Remember, accompanying guests or spouses have no expenses, except for meals, when traveling by car.
The NSBA has national and regional conventions. Hooks, Love, Samuel, and Thompson attended five of the six conferences in 2011, 2012 and through July 2013. It must be a thrill to travel on some else’s dime while cutting teachers and pupil programs. Where is the necessity to attend, on average, 10 national and state meetings in a little more than two years? Where are the dividends from this travel and money when one third of our schools are failing and there is a substantial decrease in students?
Teachers and ancillary staff are the unsung heroes of our educational system. Teachers continuously make personal sacrifices for their students and classrooms without complaint. Yet the school board voluntarily chooses to ignore those sacrifices to support their boondoggles.
Maria F. Durant of ABC News reported in August 2013 that teachers across the county in 1998 on average used $448 of their family’s income for their classrooms. I suspect our teachers then and now fit within the national average. There are 134 teachers in Macon County for FY2014. Had the frequent travelers been the fiscal stewards we expected, each teacher would have seen upwards to $400 for their students.
The enrollment in our two failing schools is approximately 700 taught by 36 teachers. We will never know how each of those failing school students or teachers would have benefitted by an estimated $75 or $1,400, respectively. Every student in the system would have had an approximate increase of $22 to the annual student materials and programs had the MCBOE been the responsible public servants we thought them to be when we elected them to serve our students.
You ask, “How can this be?” Our trust in believing our MCBOE to use our tax dollars as their mission statement reads from their web site:
EFFECTIVE USE OF FUNDS: The Macon County School System will make every effort to spend the funds allocated from the federal and state governments and from local funds to pay the cost of educating the students in Macon County. All funds will be expended on behalf of children, including salaries, transportation, benefits, child nutrition, and local fund expenditures.
I hear good comments for Dr. Brooks’ performance as our School Superintendent, who I might add is generously compensated for at $59.85 per pupil for a $135,000 salary, according to AlabamaSchoolConnection. Compared to Lee County Superintendent at $14.50 per student for an annual salary of $143,000 and Elmore County $9.56 per student for a $109,000 salary I would say her compensation is generous.
As the MCBOE gatekeeper, Brooks repeatedly stalled and provided documents I specifically stated I did not want (meal receipts) in lieu of documents I specifically requested multiple times (hotel, registration, and airfare receipts). Some of which I never did receive.
The rule of the game was stonewalling from day one of my first formal written Open Records request to Brooks on August 29, 2011. Part of the Open Records Laws, Section 36-12-40, reads, “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state.” Ms. Deborah Biggers, MCBOE attorney, validated the legality of my first request in a September 6, 2011 letter to Brooks. Biggers wrote, “Since the travel vouchers do not fall within one of the four (4) exceptions to the Open Records Act, the vouchers can be disclosed.”
With repeated obstructions, I contacted the Attorney General’s Office and retained an attorney, both of which should not have been necessary. I might add, a lot of time, paper, postage, and effort would have been saved by MCBOE had the request been handled as it should have during 2011.
Letter after letter, emails, and telephone calls and not receiving the requested records, such as plane fare and conference registration documentation, it quickly became apparent I might never obtain what I had the right to have. It became necessary to extrapolate from the web such information as conference registration fees, airline fees, and averages of related expenses filed by other school board members, such as mileage, to create the picture of the MCBOE escapades.
I find alarming that my MCBOE representative Karey Thompson chose to ignore my two formal written Open Records requests of February 23, 2013 and April 22, 2013. Surely, within his 10 trips and $13,000 in travel, he understands the intent of the law. Additionally, not communicating with his constituents is disrespectful to his constituency and to his oath of office. By his actions, he is no better than the elected servants we complain of often for their contempt and elitist behavior towards voters.
“Elitist” as defined by the Encarta Dictionary is “the belief that some people or things are inherently superior to others and deserve preeminence, preferential treatment, or higher rewards because of their superiority.”
Our MCBOE elitists ignore economical accommodations for high-end accommodations. Case in point, on Love, Hooks, and Thompson’s April 2013 on-line San Diego airline ticket San Diego’s Circle Days Inn had an ad for a night stay beginning with $68. However, they choose a $180/night stay for the four nights ($810 after applied taxes) for the “sensual accommodations, personalized service, and exceptional amenities” at the beautiful and luxurious Andaz San Diego for themselves and at least a guest, who appears to have traveled multiple times including Boston in April 2012.
Beyond the travel and hotel expenses, we also paid for $30.00 caucus memberships, $65 lunches, prime rib dinners, and tens of thousands of dollars for convention registrations.
In addition to the $849 three-night stay in Orange Beach for the summer 2013 AASB convention, we also got hit for nearly $300 in registration, $300 for mileage, and an average of $100 for meals for this high-end get-away for each of them.
Samuel’s “travel club point summary” with a seemingly unlimited MCBOE credit card is similar to the other three of the board. His disturbing frequency of travel and locations for the 27 months include April 2011 San Francisco; July 2011 Asheville, North Carolina; December 2011 Birmingham; March 2012 Birmingham; April 2012 with a guest to Boston; June 2012 Orange Beach; July 2012 Biloxi; December 2012 Birmingham; June 2013 Orange Beach; and July 2013 Destin, Florida.
Samuel, Thompson, and Hooks tied at 10 excursions each and Love had nine expense paid trips. Regardless of the number of “conferences”, each took roughly $13,000 from our students.
Sad but true commentary of our MCBOE members’ elitism is demonstrated by the $283/night Perdido Beach Resort with “Each of these persons have had reservations in the past under the Macon County Board of Education P.O. Box 830090 Tuskegee, AL 36083-0090.”
Arrogance, contempt, elitism, and an appearance of betraying their oaths of office for personal gain.
- According to quickfacts.census.gov between 2007 and 2011, 26.7% of our Macon County neighbors lived below the poverty level as compared to 17.6% statewide.
- One hundred percent of our county students are eligible for free or reduced meals.
- According to Heard, our 2014 pupil enrollment is down by 500 since 2010.
- Governor Bentley in his 2014 State of the State address said "Everyone in this room knows Alabama is one of the poorest states in America, where one in four children live in poverty. Nearly one million of our fellow Alabamians are dependent on Food Stamps." wrote Charles J. Dean. Dean goes on to write that Macon County is the 7th poorest county with 30.9% below the poverty line.
- And In 2010 Macon County ranked 60 of 67 counties with $27,600 median household income.
- According to dhr.alabama.gov, Macon County families in August 2013 received $992,936.00 in both public and non-public food assistance.
At the minimum, there is something morally wrong with this picture. Knowing our elected servants who volunteered to serve our children and community staying in $330 night resorts and packing and unpacking their suitcases on average 10 times in less than 2 ½ years while our children are “hurting” and teacher units being slashed. Taxes used to support these extravaganzas are in part from one of the most economically challenged Alabama counties.
How about an expense paid trip to the Big Apple? As I understand from Attorney Biggers, some of our school board traveled to NYC compliments of a bonding company for negotiations on a school bond.
Personally, I would have thought the bonding company would have wanted to see Macon County and come to us. Though we did not pay for this NYC junket it is a safe bet the MCBOE has seen more of the U.S. in 27 months than most of us will in our lifetime.
Laced with acquired arrogance, contempt, elitism, and the thrill of traveling with no out of pocket expenses, all while families are financially struggling or having lost their job or worse their home this excessive travel must be immediately stopped. The ASBA web site portal “School Board Member Academy” summarizes the new law as requiring MCBOE members to be “…required to earn 6 hours of continuing education, which includes 2 hours of full-board, interactive training.“ The site also provides webinars (1.5 hours) at $40/person or $150 per group and DVD (1.5 hours) rentals for only $50/each. Furthermore, the site indicates on-line training may have been available as far back as 2007.
One such on-line course is “Effective Boards & Relationships Orientation.” According to its course description it “will apply to the state mandated training hours starting July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014” with 6 Board Training Credit Hours for only $215. Our children would have benefitted by thousands of additional dollars for academics, extracurricular clubs, and sports teams had the board members taken this course instead of traveling as they did since October of 2012.
I shudder at the thought of how many tax dollars the MCBOE spent during the last five or ten years or during a six-year term of office.
Citizens must elect servants willing to serve instead of requiring taxpayers to serve them. If the MCBOE honestly wanted to do right for the community, they would immediately resign instead of wanting another term of being served.
Assuming they will ignore the request to resign then immediately clipping MCBOE’s wings and permitting the chips to fall as they may, only then will our schools, teachers, and most importantly, our children benefit.
1 Orange Beach June 2012 ASSB Summer Conference, 2 nights in a $330/night resort
2 San Diego April 2013 NSBA, $100 for black caucus membership and luncheon, $229/night stay x 4 nights
3 Destin, Florida July 2013 NSBA South Regional, days after Samuel's June 2013 State House proclamation of the necessity to "cut" teachers and programs, $1,400 for 3 days at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.