Three Georgia Department of Education officials traveled to Europe late last year involving expenses of almost $9,400, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The state agency initially said the French government covered the costs.
When asked for details of the French payment such as when it was made, officials said the money came from a Georgia trust fund set up for international exchanges for students, staff and teachers.
Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said Georgia taxpayers didn’t pay into the fund, which was established in 1994 with help from a private donor. He said there was confusion about who paid for it because of how long the fund has been around.
The officials who traveled to France included Joel Thornton, who was Georgia School Superintendent John Barge’s chief of staff at the time of the trip; David Turner, director of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education at the department; and Greg Barfield, program specialist for World Languages and Global Initiatives.
The purpose of the trip was to renew a memorandum of understanding between the department and the Academie of Nancy-Metz, officials said. It served as an opportunity to establish relationships with business officials in France and study how the French teach culinary arts, Thornton said.
Culinary arts is one subject in the state’s “career pathways” initiative. Under the new program, Georgia students are being asked to choose a pathway leading to a possible career.
Critics say the trip was a waste of money.
“This is a shocking abuse of authority and misuse of funds appropriated for students,” said William Perry, head of Georgia’s Common Cause, a non-partisan watchdog group. “This is the exact kind of thing that makes people throw their hands up and completely distrust government officials.”
Barge defended the French trip.
“It helped bring more students and teachers, and ultimately administrators, from France for an exchange program and allowed some of our own students and teachers to visit France,” he said. “Any time you can get them to experience other cultures is worthwhile and gives them a competitive advantage.”