By Denise Dick
The fiscal monitor for the city school district has denied a request to spend about $12,000 in district funds to send five school board members to a conference next month in San Diego.
“Even though I believe the conference would benefit the board members who attend and thus would benefit the school district, the potential controversy that it could create outweighs the benefits of attending,” wrote James Reinhard, in a letter to board members Wednesday. He is the fiscal monitor appointed by the Youngstown Schools Academic Distress Commission.
The school board had passed a resolution Tuesday authorizing President Richard Atkinson and members Lock P. Beachum Sr., Marcia Haire-Ellis, Brenda Kimble and Michael Murphy to attend the April 13-15 National School Boards Association 73rd Annual Conference.
The cost, including registration, Black Caucus luncheon and workshops, hotel and airfare, totals $11,862.
Atkinson and Haire-Ellis each had planned to pay for their own airfares. Members Rachel Hanni and Andrea Mahone weren’t going.
Adrienne O’Neill, chairwoman of the academic distress commission, sent an email to the board office Wednesday saying that the expense must be approved by Reinhard. Last December, the academic commission took over budget authority because of a projected deficit. The commission, through the fiscal monitor, must approve all expenditures exceeding $5,000 and all contracts.
“In response to Dr. O’Neill, it is my opinion that public expenses for the Board of Education to attend the National School Boards convention in San Diego should not be approved,” Reinhard wrote.
Atkinson said he planned to contact the board members to see if they’re willing to pay all or some of the costs themselves.
“We’ll have to see,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know individual board members’ situations.
If he has to pay his own way, Atkinson said he’s willing to do that. He believes the conferences are beneficial as members meet and talk to board members from other urban districts and discuss problems and potential solutions.
Beachum wrote back to Reinhard that he’s an officer in the Council of Urban Boards of Education and on the nominating committee for next year’s slate of members.
“This is my last year of service on the national level and I would have been recognized for my service as a member of the National School Board of Directors and chair of the Council of Urban Boards,” Beachum wrote. “I was the first from Ohio to serve in this capacity. I will request my name be removed from the program if I am unable to attend.”
Beachum said he’d like to go, but he’s not sure if he’ll pay the costs himself.
“If I can’t go, I’m not going to get upset about it,” he said. “The school district comes first.”
Reinhard cited “potential negative publicity” and the negative effect it could have on public support of the district’s reconfiguration plan as the main reason for not approving the expenditure.
“The plan is a critical part of improving the district’s current financial situation,” Reinhard wrote in the letter.
Superintendent Connie Hathorn unveiled a restructuring plan for the district last week that involves closing some buildings and reconfiguring or re-purposing others to save money, expand student choice and improve student academic performance.
“I fully recognize that there is nothing illegal or unethical about board members attending a national conference,” the fiscal monitor wrote. “I would even go as far as to applaud board members who are willing to devote their personal time and energy to improve themselves, which in turn would help the school district.”
But he said news stories may not portray the trip that way.
“I have observed situations in the past where a news story focuses on the expenditures for travel, hotels, and meals, and ignores the positive aspects of a conference,” Reinhard wrote. “Many people, who read this story, then believe that the school board members are being selfish and are wasting taxpayers’ money. As wrong as this perception may be, it is still the perception of many people.”