St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva is a believer in sending staffers where the know-how is — whether it’s next door at the University of Minnesota or all the way to Australia.
Amid a major push to raise student achievement, Silva has put a premium on tapping the insights of educators and experts across the country and even abroad. Nonetheless, district leaders say the St. Paul school system is more disciplined about travel spending and has a leaner tab to show for it.
In the past four years, spending on travel, conferences and conventions that the 37,860-student district reported to the state has shrunk by more than 20 percent. At more than $1.7 million last school year, the total and the roughly $46 per pupil cost remain some of the heftier among large metro districts.
Some Twin Cities-area districts have pulled back on out-of town trainings and conferences — spending that, at times, has touched off criticism as budgets have tightened. Still, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, leaders say comparing notes on a national stage has been indispensable to tackle a slew of reform initiatives.
Otherwise, said St. Paul board chairwoman Jean O’Connell, “It’s easy to get insular and stop seeing the bigger picture.”
St. Paul administrators acknowledge it can be difficult to travel frugally. Events in downtown metro areas can mean steeper hotel bills, they said. A Pioneer Press analysis of recent travel spending turned up at least one $442-a-night
charge at a Boston hotel.
A workshop in Australia for Hazel Park Middle School staff set the district back $34,170 in travel costs and workshop fees, nearly $10,000 more than the district estimated weeks before the trip.
The smaller, 34,430-student Minneapolis district has reported more than $2 million in travel and training spending in each of the past five years.
Keeping current on a dynamic national education scene is a high priority in the district, said Michelle Walker, St. Paul’s chief of staff.
The many changes under Silva’s “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” plan have created greater demands for training, including the training required to certify new programs, she said.
In the months before unveiling the three-year plan in early 2011, Silva and Michael Baumann, now her deputy, visited the Miami-Dade County district, the nation’s fourth-largest. They learned about its progress toward closing the achievement gap and toured the kind of online learning-based high school that St. Paul plans to replicate.
As the district gears up to transform junior high schools into middle schools next fall, staff members have traveled to Philadelphia, San Diego and Indianapolis for training in AVID, a college readiness program the district is expanding at the middle level.
After the district kicked off a new Chinese immersion program in the 2011-12 school year, its Mandarin immersion program coordinator traveled to China. The nonprofit Confucius Institute organized and funded a weeklong series of workshops and school visits. The district covered airfare to Chicago and registration.
St. Paul administrators also have had occasions to “toot the district’s horn” at national events, as Walker put it. Silva has done presentations on overhauling services for English learners, while Walker has spoken about staff accountability.
Silva is a frequent flier. Last year, she traveled to Miami, Houston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Cincinnati, Seattle, Oakland, San Antonio and Boston on district business.
In San Antonio, she attended a conference on the impact of racial inequities on student achievement. In Boston, she sat on a classroom technology panel.
Sometimes event organizers cover the bulk of the costs while the district chips in for some incidental expenses.
O’Connell, the board chair, said the main reason Silva travels more than her predecessors is that as one of few Latina superintendents, she is a coveted speaker.
“She is asked to speak at a large number of events,” O’Connell said. “Quite often, she turns those invitations down.”
Across the metro, districts have come to scrutinize travel expenses more closely.
In February 2009, Anoka-Hennepin imposed an all-out moratorium on out-of-state travel as part of a budget-cuts package. The district has relaxed the ban since, but guidelines for approving such trips remain stricter, said Mary Olson, communications director. When she turned in a travel request recently, she included a page-long rationale and a list of conference sessions she planned to attend.
Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan asks employees to explain how they will share what they learn with colleagues. The district tends to approve events within a Chicago radius, said Tony Taschner, communications director.
His district reported the lowest per-pupil travel spending among the largest Minnesota districts — $23 last school year compared to $46 in St. Paul and $58 in Minneapolis.
However, differences in how districts classify their expenses can muddy costs comparisons.
Mark Westpfahl, an Inver Grove Heights school board member, said out-of-town workshops and conferences are harder to justify in view of ever tighter budgets. He’s encouraged his district to ask: If a teacher or small group of educators feel they can benefit from training, would it make sense to offer it for the entire school as part of on-site professional development?
“Out-of-school training is very costly and in some regards does not produce the results that are intended,” said Westpfahl, who teaches in St. Paul.
St. Paul district officials say there are limits to how much they can rein in travel and training costs.
Some district contracts include allowances for professional memberships, conventions and workshops, including $2,750 for principals.
Because many events take place in the heart of major cities, it is not always practical to book rooms in outlying budget hotels, officials said.
A sample of recent employee trips reveals a range of room costs.
A district nutrition services employee stayed in Rochester, Minn., for about $100 a night during a Minnesota School Nutrition Association event. Silva spent $256 per night in Washington, D.C., for a legislative policy conference last year.
The district’s director of school and program improvement spent three nights at the luxury Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston during a conference in late 2011. The district reimbursed her at $442.92 a night.
Last school year, the district set out to launch a new International Baccalaureate, or IB, program at Hazel Park Middle School. The program offers rigorous courses that yield college credit in the later grades.
On a tight timeline, the district said the most efficient way to obtain the required training for a group of teachers and administrators would be to send them to Australia — something a spokesman for the Bethesda, Md.-based IB Americas deemed highly unusual, given various training opportunities in the U.S.
At the time, the district estimated the total cost of the trip for seven Hazel Park staffers and a district administrator at $24,700, including the use of substitutes to fill in for the teachers. But records show travel costs alone came to $34,170 for nine people.
Overall, however, St. Paul officials say the district monitors travel spending more closely and spends smarter than ever before.
MORE QUESTIONS ASKED
Employees can attend national conferences only if they are presenters. If an educator requests permission to attend an event out of town, the principal and a top district administrator have to sign off on travel plans and estimated costs.
“We used to trust people got the best prices they could get,” said Sun Wisneski, accounting technician overseeing travel and professional development. “Now, we ask a lot of questions.”
The district also has looked for more training opportunities closer to home or in-house. Earlier this school year, it hosted an IB workshop for another 38 Hazel Park educators.
“All of us in St. Paul are spending less on out-of-state travel,” said Charlotte Landreau, the IB diploma coordinator at Highland Park High School.
The district has a $655 million budget. Of last year’s $1.7 million in travel and training spending — up slightly from the previous year — some took place in the Twin Cities or elsewhere in Minnesota. Some was covered by private grants.
Roughly 13 percent was federally funded out-of-state travel related to programs serving disadvantaged students. That amount includes some private-school travel the district covers before obtaining federal reimbursement.
At the start of the last school year, Minneapolis revised its 23-year-old travel policy to strengthen oversight of approval and reimbursement. The district’s chief executive officer issued a memo limiting overnight travel to events deemed essential — and to two overnight trips a year per employee.
The changes made a small dent in the total of such spending the district reported to the state, which has remained at more than $2 million in each of the past five years.
Alberto Monserrate, the Minneapolis school board chairman, said opportunities to draw on national expertise have been invaluable amid efforts to better serve English language learners and students of color, among other initiatives.
“I am a big believer in not reinventing the wheel when you don’t have to,” he said.
Monserrate said the board plans to take a closer look at travel expenses as it looks for ways to trim the budget this spring. However, he said, “If that’s at the expense of our efforts to improve achievement, I would not support it.”
MaryJo Webster contributed to this report. Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.