Mike Brake | December 20, 2018

School districts spent millions on travel

Mike Brake

During the 2017-18 school year, while teachers were marching on the state Capitol and some school districts were cutting back to four-day weeks, Oklahoma’s two largest districts spent nearly $2.5 million on travel to various conferences and other trips.

Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) reported spending $977,061 on travel outside of the district and registration costs for professional conferences in fiscal year 2018. The report from Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) was more general but indicated expenditures of approximately $1.5 million.

In one widely publicized case, the principal and 11 other faculty members and others from one Tulsa high school spent $22,000 for a week in Las Vegas at a conference. That same principal and three other administrators also attended a conference in Napa, California, at a cost of $15,000.

Much of the spending on travel was from so-called “use it or lose it” accounts that are heavily restricted by state or federal regulations that limit what the money can be used for.

Oklahoma City noted that most of its travel and conference spending came from various federal funds. In most of those cases, federal rules limit how those dollars can be spent.

For example, Oklahoma City used $258,138 in federal Title I funds to pay for travel to conferences dealing with Title I activities and services. Title I dollars are dedicated to schools with high concentrations of low-income students.

Just $236,524 of the Oklahoma City travel expenditures were listed as “non-categorical,” meaning the funds did not come from some kind of dedicated account.

The Tulsa example also involved Title I funds. News reports noted that principal Sheila Riley and 11 others from Hale High School traveled to Las Vegas in mid-April, when many teachers were still at the Capitol demanding funding for raises.

Riley defended the trip at the time, saying the Title I funds had been earmarked to hire a teacher and an aide but that no qualified candidates could be found for those positions.

TPS spokeswoman Emma Garrett Nelson also defended the Las Vegas trip, saying Riley “had the option to either lose unspent funds earmarked for professional growth or to use them to help improve her school by strengthening her team. She chose the latter and has seen the benefits of that learning experience in the ways that her team engages with each other and with their students.”

Garrett Nelson said Riley is planning to send another Hale delegation to a similar conference during the coming summer.

Much of the controversy over how school funds are spent, especially in tight budget years, stems from the many restrictions attached to various school funds. A district’s budget is drawn from state funds (usually allocated on the basis of enrollment numbers), local property tax revenues, and a wide assortment of federal funds which are often targeted at limited sub-populations.

Most of those federal dollars are restricted in use, and so are some state and local funds. For example, a school might receive extra dollars for each special education student, but those dollars are limited to being spent only on special education programs.

Hence for spending purposes there is no such thing as one budget for a school; dollars are divided into many silos with attached spending restrictions. That is why a school might have a million dollars in the bank but be legally prohibited from using any of those dollars to hire a needed kindergarten teacher.

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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