During last week’s Mobile County public school board meeting, some concerns were raised about employees’ out-of-county travel expenses and what was being done to monitor their costs.
After some discussion, the board ultimately voted 4-1 to approve out-of-county travel for 64 trips, totaling $74,071.89, with Commissioner Dr. William Foster voting against the measure.
Foster, who represents District 5, presented several questions related to the travel expenses prior to the vote.
“He had just a couple of things he looked at on the travel and he wasn’t real sure that he had gotten full answers on what he wanted,” Superintendent Martha Peek said afterward.
While Foster noted employees from the MCPSS central office travel out-of-state “quite frequently,” his major concern appeared to lie within the discrepancies between each employee’s individual travel costs, which range from $600 to $2,300.
However, Peek explained that some employees are required to attend pre-conferences and other workshops during their trips that cause individual expenses to fluctuate.
“We do try to monitor that,” she said during the meeting.
In November, $64,967.45 was spent on out-of-county travel, compared to $63,320.71 in October.
Further, $50,887.07 was spent in September and $13,321.96 in August. April topped out-of-county travel expenses at $236,162.98 with 115 federally funded trips for $212,516.30, 11 locally-funded trips for $19,896.68 and one state-funded trip for $3,750.
With June ringing up $62,470, the average monthly out-of-county travel costs appear to be between $50,000 and $70,000.
According to Peek, these numbers present a “normal average,” considering MCPSS has a roster of about 7,500 employees and all of those employees, whether teachers, administrators or other faculty members, are currently eligible for one in-county and one out-of-county professional development trip per year.
“With the number of employees we have, that’s pretty much average,” she said.
Currently, the board must approve any out-of-county travel exceeding $600, and for a number of years, each employee is allowed one out-of-state trip per year, Peek said.
However, because there are a number of programs and special training, different people involved require some out-of-state or out-of-county travel and may require more than one trip, a new procedure is set so ongoing professional development is not limited, Peek said.
“What our procedure now simply will be is that we will evaluate each request based on need, that it won’t just be a standard, one in-county [and] one out-of-county trip, but it will be based on need,” she said. “We won’t just have that hard and fast rule. We will evaluate each one based on the need, the merit of the travel and the availability too.”
Foster also suggested employees group together for travel, which may lower the out-of-county travel costs, and mentioned the idea of bringing workshops to Mobile.
“We certainly would like to bring people in as much as possible,” Peek said during the meeting.
Further, Peek added if there is a workshop or professional development program being offered in Mobile that is equivalent to an out-of-county trip, the board would suggest the employee look at that opportunity rather than incur the cost of traveling. However, hosting a workshop is oftentimes just as expensive or even more expensive than traveling to a conference, she said.
“The thing about it too is that when you try to bring some of the renowned speakers, presenters and professionals into town, it would range that much or more at times,” Peek said. “We’re just going to have to watch it and take it on a case-by-case basis … when we can, we do bring those services and those people into Mobile and we will continue to make every effort to do that. We’ll just have to look and consider the costs … ”
While the new procedure for out-of-county travel may actually allow for more employee trips, Peek said there will be no official standard or policy in place to gauge the number or cost of trips. The board will be the ultimate decision makers, she said.
“Certainly, we will watch that very carefully, but there’s not a particular limit,” she said. “But, like with anything, if it becomes that we know that there’s an excessive amount of travel or cost, then we certainly will address that at the time.”
Funding for out-of-county travel comes from two sources: Title I and Title II funds. With both, a portion of those funds can be used for professional development. Federally allocated funds include guidelines regulating how they can be spent and include professional development, Peek said.
“In order to enhance teaching and learning, people have to stay abreast of current practices and programs in education, so those funds can be used,” she said.
According to Peek, local school funds are funds schools have earned and generated on their own by means like fundraising and PTA contributions. For the out-of-county trips, they may use a combination of Title I funds and local school funds, she said.
According to the December out-of-county travel report, $69,802.51 was spent in federal funds, compared to $4,269.38 in local funds.
Despite the recent concerns and future changes, Peek said she expects no opposition from the board, adding the board works very consistently and will make sure to watch the issue “very carefully.”
“It’s a procedure, and I think that it will be fine,” she said. “That’s the good thing with working with the board is that they look at things with a different set of eyes … I think that it was just a good time to pause and refresh on it and say maybe we need to look at this a little bit differently now.”