Conference accounting

Three months after attending the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE) annual conference in New Orleans where BISD Superintendent Carrol Thomas was recognized as the outgoing president of the organization, school district officials are now headed to San Antonio for the Texas Alliance of Black School Educators (TABSE) conference.

While at least 82 people attended the New Orleans conference, it is believed that about 20 BISD administrators and employees will be in San Antonio. The conference is designed to target the education of African-American students and carries a motto of “Education is a civil right: Today’s strategies that build tomorrow’s leaders of African descent.”

While some have focused on the fact that NABSE and TABSE – based on their mission statements – target only black students, BISD Trustee Mike Neil said he isn’t going into that. He said the problem he has is the money that BISD is spending when times are tight and the district should be tightening its financial belt.BISD employees do attend other conferences but none received the attention or number of attendees from BISD that the NABSE conference does, which listed the Rev. Jessie Jackson as its keynote speaker. Other conferences that BISD employees attend include those for math and science teachers, English teachers, Title 1 programs, school administration, and gifted and talented programs, to name a few.

A review of records from the NABSE conference revealed it cost much more than the $88,000 previously reported to the media by the district. The number increased because the district failed to include individual costs associated with conference registration fees of about $32,000 and it didn’t include another $5,000 in charges to an American Express credit card used by Superintendent Thomas – pushing the total for the trip above $120,000. Those credit card charges were for hotels rooms, presumably used by BISD trustees and some members of Thomas’ administrative cabinet. A preliminary cost for the San Antonio trip was not available at press time.

“When we were told it was only $88,000, I knew that wasn’t right. Those numbers weren’t even close,” Neil said. “None of this makes sense, but that is stupid spending. We need to watch the nickels and dimes, and $120,000 isn’t nickels and dimes. This is not about it being a black organization. We are in a financial crunch, and to me that is a lot of wasteful spending. That is a bunch of money for a conference.”

While not all of the receipts from the New Orleans event have been turned over in compliance with a Texas Public Information Act request made in December, what is available shows a number of inconsistencies and raises questions about what BISD employees sought reimbursement for. Most of the attendees were reimbursed for mileage but two were reimbursed for airfare from the Jack Brooks Regional Airport to the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, along with cab fare or shuttle fees.

Verna Azore spent $585.40 on a flight from Beaumont to New Orleans and another $50 on baggage fees for items she checked with the airline. Lady Savoi-Watson also flew to New Orleans. The cost of her airline ticket was $605.40 plus $50 for a checked bag with the airline and an additional $38 on a shuttle from the airport to the Hilton New Orleans.

“There is no reason to have flown two people,” Neil said. “I don’t know why we would pay someone to fly to New Orleans.”

According to a review of other travel reimbursement documents for the New Orleans trip, other administrators, teachers and BISD officials were reimbursed a travel allowance based on a round trip from Beaumont to New Orleans. The district is required to use a mileage calculation chart and the amount consistently reimbursed was $318.57 based on a rate of 55.5 cents per mile.

According to BISD board policy, “An employee of the district shall be reimbursed for authorized mileage incurred while performing duties related to the job only if such travel is at the request of the employee’s immediate supervisor and is approved by the superintendent or designee.”

When asked about why some employees were allowed to fly to the conference rather than be reimbursed for mileage, BISD assistant spokesperson Craig Eichhorn did not have an answer.

“I didn’t attend that conference, but I will see what I can find out,” he said.

An e-mail sent to his boss, BISD communications director Jessie Haynes, did not receive a response by press time.

The fact that some employees flew to New Orleans rather than drive like nearly all others who attended upset BISD trustees Tom Neild, who said he believes those employees should repay the district the difference in travel costs.

“To me it is real clear; they owe the taxpayers the difference of what they spent to fly versus what they spent to drive unless there is some sort of justification that is presented,” Neild said. “That needs to be clearly explained.”

Another concern was the number of counselors and other employees who attended the conference that weren’t supposed to be there, such as Tamraka McGriff, or Tamraka Manuel as she is listed in BISD reimbursement documents. McGriff is the assistant director of the BISD transportation department.

A press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas in 2010 stated, “According to information presented in court, in August 2005, McGriff enrolled her disabled minor son in a state-funded residential program in Austin. McGriff was aware that she was required to report the change in her son’s residential status to the Social Security Administration, but failed to do so. Additionally, McGriff’s income increased beyond Social Security requirements and her entitlement to benefits ceased completely in July 2008. In total, McGriff received over $15,000 in benefits to which she was not entitled.”

McGriff, who pleaded guilty to the federal charges 18 months ago and is on probation, received a $1,514.65 advance for the trip from BISD, which included $318.57 in mileage reimbursement.

A call was made to the federal probation department, but it was not immediately clear if McGriff had permission to attend the event. A spokesperson said they would have to review the file.

“I was told as a board member that the only people going were principals and assistant principals — if they went, that counted as their conference for the year,” Neild said. “If someone other than principals went, then that needs to be reimbursed to the district.”

Another irregularity in the travel reimbursements involved Jessie Kibbles and his wife, Michelle. Michelle works at the administration building and Jessie is a principal at Pathways. According to the travel documents filed, both Kibbles stayed at the same hotel and both received payment for mileage; however, only Michelle Kibbles turned in receipts for parking.

“If they both say they drove to New Orleans, then why didn’t they both turn in receipts for parking,” Mike Neil asked. “I think you know the answer, but let me ask you a question: If you go to New Orleans and your wife goes to New Orleans at the same time for the same conference, is it likely you are going to drive separate vehicles?”

Gabrielle Polk was provided a $1,058.62 travel advance for the conference but it is not known if she attended the NABSE event because BISD has not provided any receipts to justify the amount she was paid.

To their credit, BISD officials did catch some items that were turned in for reimbursement that would not be allowed under BISD policy or state law. One in particular was a pay-per-view movie for $15.99 and room service in the amount of $35.53 by Margie Clayton, who works at Charlton Pollard Elementary. Clayton, who stayed at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel, also turned in expenses for Internet usage and two breakfast receipts – one for $21.46 and another for $54.09.The latter charge indicated someone was likely dining with her, which led to a review of whether employees were sharing rooms or had brought their spouses along for the trip. Since BISD employees and administrators stayed at different hotels, it was difficult to determine who brought their spouses and who didn’t but it was apparent that some did, including David Harris, BISD’s assistant superintendent for secondary education, who had a king-sized bed with two adults listed on the folio. In fact, there were several BISD employees who turned in travel documents for reimbursement that showed two guests in a room where there was only a single king-sized bed.

“I am not saying we shouldn’t have conferences, but for this amount of money we could have brought someone here so all of our teachers and employees could benefit. Let’s just say it like it is,” Neild said after being presented with the information. “It was an all expense paid trip on the back of the taxpayers, so people could go to New Orleans and have a party. When everyone else around the state and country is struggling, here we go spending money like this. This is inexcusable, and there is no way to justify it.

“I think the thing that bothers me the most is that we haven’t given raises to our teachers but we can spend $120,000 or more for a NABSE conference. And now they are going to San Antonio, and there is no telling what we will spend this week.”

Neild said he is frustrated and he believes he has been lied to about how much money the district actually has available.

“We have this money for NABSE and TABSE and we are spending $3 million to renovate Eugene-Field Elementary out of our general budget. What that tells me is that our budget is a sham,” he said. “That lets me know that we have money hidden in all kinds of accounts that we should have been able to squeeze out to give teachers a raise. If I am wrong, then I want the administration to prove me wrong, but that’s what it looks like to me. The money that we spent on this trip could have paid for four educational aides that could help teachers in the district.

“This place is a runaway train, a runaway train. And the only way to stop it is to get trustees on the board who want to look after the best interests of the taxpayers’ money. Obviously, there are only a couple of us with those concerns currently on the board. It’s unreal.”