Originally created 12/16/03

Expenses of travel result in criticism



The Richmond County Board of Education spent at least $8,400 for charter buses and hotel rooms while visiting magnet schools throughout the Southeast this fall, according to accounting records obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.

The district spent $2,799 to charter a bus for its October trip to Alexandria, Va., and Charlotte, N.C. It also booked about a dozen hotel rooms for $137 a night in Alexandria and $92 a room in Charlotte.

Last week, a few board members and central office staff members traveled to Tampa and Sarasota, Fla., paying $1,925 for a bus and $91 a night for each of six rooms at Holiday Inn-Busch Gardens in Tampa.

School officials are touring the Southeast to look for ideas for a new $16 million vocational magnet school planned for Richmond County, which will be funded with the second phase of the special purpose local option sales tax.

But the travel expenses have been taken from the general fund even as Superintendent Charles Larke freezes vacant personnel positions to make up for revenue shortfalls. Midyear cuts from the state budget could shrink the district's budget by $3 million, district Controller Gene Spires said.

Board member Johnny Hatney challenged Dr. Larke and board members in November for taking the trips during tight financial times.

"My concern is all the trips, and we keep talking about how tight we are," Dr. Hatney said.

But several board members defended the trips as necessary to the planning of the new magnet school. Helen Minchew said the board agreed to the trips during a summer retreat and was careful to conserve costs by taking a bus.

Chamber of Commerce officials in two cities say the hotels the board used were not extravagant.

School officials stayed at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Charlotte, a four-star hotel about six miles from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology High School. Rooms were $92 each.

"In general, $92 a night does not surprise me," said Tony Crumbley, the vice president of research at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. "You can spend $200 a night here with no problem. But likewise, you can get a $50 a night. But not downtown, though.

"Can you find one cheaper? Yes. If I was a school board, I wouldn't want them staying in a $50-a-night (hotel). It's a business-class hotel, and the school board is business class."

In Alexandria, where rooms at Hampton Inn cost the district $137 a night, officials say there are cheaper rooms farther from town.

"The reason Old Towne is so expensive is because it's an historical area," said Carrie Grube, of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. "There are cheaper places along (U.S.) Route 1, which is right before you get to Old Towne."

During the November meeting, Dr. Larke said the group has traveled cheaply.

"We stay at nice places at a nice price," he said.

School spokeswoman Mechelle Jordan said travel expenses from the trips have not all been tallied and could exceed $8,400. Central office administrators are examining whether the travel costs can be taken out of the special purpose local option sales tax money because they are related to building the magnet school.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.