Expenses incurred to send entire Shawnee Mission school board to conference draw criticism

Shawnee Mission Board of Education President Deb Zila defended the decision to send the entire board to the NSBA conference as an important professional development opportunity.
Shawnee Mission Board of Education President Deb Zila defended the decision to send the entire board to the NSBA conference as an important professional development opportunity.

The growing uncertainty about district funding for the coming year has local education advocates raising questions about the Shawnee Mission Board of Education’s decision to send all seven of its members — including one who is certain not to be on the board after this month’s elections — to a conference in Nashville.

The entire board plus Superintendent Jim Hinson attended the National School Boards Association conference in Nashville last week, the second year in a row the entire board has attended a national conference. Though the district says total expenses for the trip have not been totaled, records show that Shawnee Mission spent $7,160 on registration and $2,857.60 on airfare for the event. Costs for hotel rooms and meals have not been processed by the district’s business office yet, but the district says it reserved eight hotel rooms for the trip for three nights each.

When the entire board attended the 2014 Model Schools conference in Orlando, the total cost was $11,344.19 — and registration fees for that event were $3,000 cheaper than for NSBA this year. The district did not pay for any board members to attend a national conference in 2013.

Kathy Cook, the co-founder of Kansas Families for Education who spent 10 years lobbying for public education funding in Topeka, raised questions about the board’s decision making on the issue during the open forum at Monday’s board of education meeting.

Cook said she’s concerned that amid a legislative environment where the governor ordered an unexpected mid-year funding cut just two months ago, spending money to send that many administrators to a conference was unjustifiable.

“One thing we agree with the district on this is complete uncertainty,” Cook said of the funding situation. “Why would you take this trip when you don’t know what funding is going to look like in two months?”

While sending administrators to such conferences is well precedented, most districts tend to send just a few representatives. This year, for instance, Blue Valley sent three representatives to NSBA, though neighboring districts DeSoto and Olathe didn’t send any, according to the list of registered delegates from Kansas. But what’s particularly baffling to Cook was the decision to send at-large board member Joan Leavens, who announced in January that she would not be seeking reelection to the seat she won in a hotly contested battle in 2011. Leavens will be off the board of education in a number of weeks, meaning she’ll have almost no time to apply whatever knowledge she gained at the conference in her role on the board.

Board of Education President Deb Zila, who is running unopposed for re-election to the SM South area seat in next week’s election, did not respond to repeated inquires from PVPost seeking comment on the issue.

At Monday’s board meeting, however, she and other board members defended their decision to attend the conference, saying professional development for the board was a worthy expense and that having the entire board there together helped them share knowledge and bounce ideas off one another. Here was Zila’s comment on the issue from Monday:

“Although our main functions are policy, budget and hiring the superintendent, we also give the vision of this district. We are a part of that. And if we don’t know what are the coming trends, what is passé, where we need to be, how we need to inspire our kids and our teachers — it’s very, very vitally important that the board be a part of this. In my eight years on the board we have truly not done any board development — professional development. We have not included ourselves in that rank. And I think it is high time. And it was very, very, very beneficial for the board to be together.”

But some current and former district employees say the optics of the board spending money on a conference trip at a time when teachers are having a hard time getting small purchase orders filled aren’t good. Chris Cindric, the former Shawnee Mission school psychologist who has mounted a write-in campaign for the SM North area seat on the board of education, shared Cook’s concerns about the decision to send the entire board.

“If it’s not going to benefit kids and teachers directly, then I’m struggling with it,” Cindric said. “It sends a bad message. Teacher morale is really low.”

Cindric said it would have been more appropriate to send one or two representatives to such conferences and ask them to bring their new knowledge back and share it with the rest of the group.

“When I’m out talking to patrons in the district, I’m hearing that they want their money going to kids and teachers,” she said. “Then you hear rumors through the grapevine that the board is going on this fabulous trip.”

District spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal said the cost of the trip to Nashville would be paid for out of the district’s grants, gifts and donations account. Some of the money in that account — which is given to the district by outside entities — has specific requirements for usage. Some of the money is available for general use.

You can see the board members recapping what they learned from the sessions they attended at NSBA via the archived video of Monday’s meeting embedded below. The discussion starts at approximately 1:43:00: