HOUSTON – A year ago, the Houston school board approved $84 million in budget cuts, to help eliminate a massive deficit.
Houston, with a rising property tax base, was listed among the “have” districts that had to share with the “have nots.”
A total of 80 administrative jobs were eliminated, along with bonuses for outstanding teachers and a special program that provided extra money for the district’s lower-performing schools.
The cuts were painful, and Houston school officials argued that they were unfair. But they knew they were coming for months before the cuts became necessary.
Yet they continued to spend a lot of money in at least one questionable area – employee travel. They didn’t have to.
At least one other major school district – Hillsborough County, based on Tampa, Florida – recently eliminated out-of-county travel for employees to help offset a deficit and minimize the impact on students.
In fiscal 2015-16, the Houston district spent $3,615,356.95 on 4,411 employee trips, according to a travel expense document obtained from the district.
That total included $1,366,688.58 for hotel accommodations, $820,046.96 on air fare, $440,486.50 on registration fees for various professional conferences, $129,474.85 on food and $136,610.71 on a category labeled as “other.”
There were many expensive trips on the district travel log, with examples too numerous to list. But here are a few examples:
An employee named Christopher Stroupe spent $4,668.18 on a trip to San Francisco between Aug. 30 and September 4, 2015. That total included $1,001.20 for air fare, $$1,073.35 for lodging, a $1,595 conference registration fee, $409 in meals and $589.63 in “other” expenses.
An employee named Michele Dahlquist spent $5,089.39 on a trip to someplace called Aurora (no state listed) between July 7-11, 2015. That total included a whopping $2,992.80 for lodging, $449.20 for air fare, $590 in registration fees and $666.93 for car rental fees.
An employee named Merrie Bonnette spent $3,100 on a trip to Boston between June 22-27, 2015. She spent $2,500 for lodging.
An employee named Marguerite Stewart spent $3,188,54 – all on air fare — for a trip to Beijing, China.
With the school district headed for such a financial pinch, was all that travel necessary?