TAMPA – Wild spending on employee travel is common on a lot of American public school districts, including some with big financial problems.
Officials at Hillsborough County Public Schools displayed some rare common sense last fall when they imposed an out-of-county employee travel ban due to a large budget deficit that forced cutbacks to student bus service and the elimination of some teaching positions.
But school board members are not technically school employees, and one frequently traveling Hillsborough County board member said she would not honor the ban.
Board member Susan Valdez spent $44,637 on travel between July 2012 through April 2016, according to a news report from ABCActionNews.com.
“Since 2012, Valdes has flown tens-of-thousands of miles and spent months in pricey hotels on your dime,” the news report said.
“An analysis of her travel expenses shows she took about 40 trips during her latest term, costing an average of more than $1,000 per trip.
“Last year, Valdes’ out-of-town travel costs were more than the other six members combined.”
When asked about her travel tab, and whether she would respect the district’s ban, Valdez was defiant.
“The thing is, I am an active board member and by statute, it’s also…there’s not a requirement, but it’s also something I can do,” she was quoted as saying.
Among expenses Valdez charged to the school district were a five-day trip to a charter school in Miami operated by a rapper named Pitbull, according to the news report.
When asked about that trip, Valdez responded, “While I was there I did visit schools. That’s why I’m able to bring things back.”
That sort of rationale does not sit well with some taxpayers.
“The fact that taxpayers paid $1,100 or more for her to spend five days looking at one charter school, which typically would be a one hour or two to visit, doesn’t make sense to me,” Pat Hall, who represents the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters, told the news service.
“Susan has taken advantage of her position to travel, and it’s gone on for 12 years,”.
Valdez has also charged the district for local excursions, including mileage when she drove to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game, and mileage and parking when she attended a concert at a local arena, the news report said.
When ABCActionNews.com asked her about charging the school to attend a concert, Valdez said “It’s something that I’m invited to attend as an elected official and those are part of the costs.”