MONROE - With budget cuts that will total $3.5 million for the 2005-2006 school year, the Monroe Board of Education is facing increasing scrutiny over conference travel.
Five board members, the superintendent, and two administrative assistants are leaving this week for a national school board conference in San Diego.
"My first thought is that the board is out of touch," said Cindi Murphy, a former teacher and mother of three students in Monroe Public Schools. "The money needs to go to the teachers for them to go to conferences. They're the ones with direct contact with the students."
Last week, board member Larry VanWasshenova said he would not be going to the conference because of the budget problems. At the board's March 22 meeting, Mr. VanWasshenova introduced a resolution calling for all future conference travel to be approved by the board on a case-by-case basis. The motion died for lack of support.
"It would be kind of hypercritical of me to make a motion not to have any conferences and then for me to go [to San Diego]," he said.
The seven board members receive $14,000, or $2,000 a year each, for conference and meeting travel, said Kenneth Laub, assistant superintendent for business. That figure was cut $6,000 last year, he said. Anything over that, and the board members must pay their own way.
For the San Diego trip, the registration fee is $610 and the hotel runs $179 a night for four nights. The board members arrange their own airfare.
Superintendent David Taylor has his own budget for conference travel that covers numerous meetings and conferences throughout the year, as stipulated in his contract, he said.
The two administrative assistants - Marcy Pennington and Lynda Castiglione - will have only their registration fee paid by the district, Mr. Taylor said.
One Monroe resident, Marygrace Liparoto, is critical of board President Wendy Barth's decision to attend the San Diego conference, pointing out that Mrs. Barth will be off the board in two months.
Mrs. Barth, who said she will share a hotel room with board Vice President June Knabusch Taylor, said she needs to be there.
"I'm the president. I have to represent the board," she said.
The issue was Topic A at a board workshop last night.
Board Secretary Donald Thurber defended the practice of attending conferences, in particular the national meetings.
"This is where the business of education goes on," he said. "It's where you see cutting edge stuff, and if you're not there you miss it. You can't get it any other way."
But Nikki Klonaris, vice president of the Monroe City Education Association, the teachers' union, had a different view.
She said teachers often are denied the opportunity to attend state conferences even when they offer to pay their own way because the administration will not approve hiring a substitute teacher to replace them.
"I commend you for looking at it. Going from $20,000 to $14,000 sounds good. But from a teacher's perspective, I'd like to have $2,000 for my department," she said.
Mr. Taylor said conferences are a part of the board's 13-year-old professional development program. "It would be a huge mistake [to cut them out]," he said. Board member David Buchko sided with Mr. VanWesshenova, Ms. Klonaris, and the parents in attendance.
"I think if we're going to reduce conferences across the district, it's only fair to start with us," he said.
At that, Mrs. Barth asked Mr. Thurber, Mr. VanWesshenova, and board member David Vensel to study the matter and report back to the board.
Said Mr. VanWesshenova on trimming board travel: "It doesn't mean we'll save jobs, but we need to show [the parents and teachers] that we understand what we're doing. That we're all cutting back, and that we're all in this together."
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