School district sees travel budget as must-have

POULSBO — The North Kitsap School District has sparked a debate because of its recommendation to increase spending on an item some people believe it could reduce: travel.

“I said that I thought they ought to freeze travel across the board,” former school board president Catherine Ahl said.

The district’s Citizens Budget Review Committee also recommended reducing spending on travel in the upcoming school year by decreasing professional development for staff. Some of the district’s travel budget — which is about $106,000 for 2010-11— is used to send teachers, principals and administrators to conferences and training sessions.

“We felt that there was some opportunity to reduce costs immediately by reducing that (professional development) budget,” committee chair Colette Wilson said. “Depending on how the district would apply it, it sort of becomes an equal hit.”

Other travel costs include conferences and legislative meetings attended by district officials and board members from across the state. At a July 8 school board meeting, board member Ed Strickland voiced his opposition to sending a North Kitsap representative to a meeting of the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA).

“I think you’re wasting your time,” Strickland told the board. “But if you want to waste your time, that’s fine. But it’s like hitting your head against a wall.”

District Superintendent Rick Jones believes the money and time spent on professional development for teachers and administrators is worthwhile, even when it requires travel.

“Staff development for teachers and administrators is the last thing I’d want to cut,” Jones said.

Ahl agreed with Strickland’s assessment of travel. During the six years she spent as the school board’s legislative representative, Ahl said she attended just two WSSDA meetings.

“I didn’t feel like they were directly benefiting kids in the classroom,” Ahl said of the meetings. “We chose not to attend WSSDA conferences and instead meet here locally and deal with local issues. Those of us that attended it didn’t find it that much of a learning (experience).”

Jones joined the school district in the summer of 2008, about six months after Ahl finished her time on the school board. Noting that the board and administrators had not been to a WSSDA conference in quite some time, he encouraged the board to begin attending the conferences more regularly.

“You can bring back a lot of good ideas to the school district,” Jones said. “Every single board member said they got something positive out of it.”

Some travel not negotiable

Trimming the travel budget may be possible by eliminating some trips to conferences, but cutting every travel-related expense would not be. Patty Glaser, who has worked for the Bremerton School District for 27 years and runs its community relations department, said travel expenses are not always negotiable. Some teachers are required by law to attend professional development seminars or other meetings. Some government funding may be tied to teachers attending those meetings.

“People get excited with big chunks of money, but the reality is it’s not that easy. There’s all kinds of strings attached,” Glaser said.

Wilson agreed, saying her committee only recommended reducing a portion of the district’s travel expenses.

“We knew that we couldn’t eliminate it completely,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot rolled into that.”

Not all travel is mandatory

Some travel expenses, though, may be more easily reduced.

Jones himself spent 30 days on business travel outside the district between Nov. 1, 2009 and June 30 of this year. But only 14 of those days were at a cost to the school district. The rest were paid by Jones or other organizations. Jones is a member of the Washington Schools Risk Management Pool and the Washington School Employees Credit Union Advisory Committee, and those groups pay for him to attend a handful of meetings throughout the year.

The school district did, however, pay for Jones to fly to Sacramento, Calif., in February to visit a candidate for the position of Poulsbo Elementary School principal.

“Hand in hand with staff development is selecting the right people,” Jones said of the trip. “I always do site visits for the finalists because I want to meet with and talk to the people they work with. I want to know they walk the talk.”

The candidate also visited Poulsbo, and paid his own expenses for that visit.

How other superintendents stack up

In contrast to Jones, Greg Lynch, superintendent of the Central Kitsap School District, spent 15 days traveling outside his district from November through June. Ten of those days were paid for by the district. Bainbridge superintendent Faith Chapel spent 22 days traveling outside the district during that time, and Bremerton superintendent Flip Herndon spent nine days traveling.

Though Jones spends more time traveling outside the office than his counterparts in neighboring districts, he said he makes up that time by working evenings and weekends.

“The work doesn’t stop whether I’m here or not here,” Jones said. “On many weekends you’ll find me here. And on many evenings you’ll find me here.”

Jones also believes the conferences, committee meetings and networking sessions remain valuable.

“I am selective about whatever I do,” he said. “It’s always with a specific purpose in mind. When I go someplace, it’s always first and foremost to learn.”

The school district’s board of directors will hold a special meeting to discuss risk management services at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at the district’s administrative offices, 18360 Caldart Ave. NE, Poulsbo. The public is invited to attend.

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