When two Jefferson Parish School Board members attended a conference in New Orleans last year, taxpayers paid the bill.
Cedric Floyd and Ricky Johnson each used public money for a three-night stay at the luxury Roosevelt Hotel, despite living only miles away in Jefferson, but that was just one conference in a busy travel itinerary for some board members.
Through a public records request, WWL-TV compiled all individual travel expenses for the nine Jefferson Parish school board members since 2015.
The records show that some board members crisscrossed the country traveling to conferences and conventions, often flying business class, sometimes spending more than $400-a-night for hotel rooms.
The records also reveal a wide disparity between the frequent flyers and the least traveled board members.
The two top spenders on travel expenses were Floyd and Johnson, each racking up more than $35,000 from 2015 through 2017. At the other end of the spectrum were four board members – Mark Morgan, Larry Dale, Melinda Bourgeois and the now-deceased Ray St. Pierre – who each tallied less than $2,600 on total travel.
That comes to a gaping 17-to-1 margin between the top spenders and those who barely travel. The wide gap has sparked criticism from board members on both ends of the travel ledger.
“It's certainly an easily abused element of the job, which is what I think we're seeing here,” said Morgan, the current board president. Morgan spent the least on travel, the records show, tallying just $1,828 over the three-year period.
Larry Dale, with the second-lowest expenses at $2,066, said, “It’s disheartening. This is government using citizens' money to, it looks like a travel club.”
Dale was especially critical of board members who flew business class, which for some trips topped $1,000, more than twice as much a coach ticket for the same flight.
“Using citizens' money to upgrade to business class, a public servant, something's wrong there,” Dale said.
Records show that Marion Bonura flew business class several times after he first took office, but he said he stopped the practice when he found out about the added cost. Bonura had the third-highest travel expenses over the period at $22,648.
“My first year, I didn't know that I could get, I thought it was that we had to take the business flight,” he said. “Come to find out, we didn't need that. The only (benefit) was getting on the plane before 15 other people. Didn't make sense. So I tell them when they make my reservation, get me the ‘Wanna Get Away’ rates.”
While Bonura said he looks for ways to save money on trips, he defended going on them.
“I want to be on this board to advance the students. And you can't do that sitting in Metairie,” he said. “You gotta go out and see the ideas that are out there.”
Floyd and Johnson strongly defended their travel to conferences, conventions and workshops as well worth the expense, saying the information they gain has been extremely valuable.
“There are places all over the United States that allow us to learn the things we need to know to make Jefferson Parish a better school system,” Johnson said. “I've been places, Utah, Arizona, Boston, and every time I go, it's to make Jefferson Parish better,”
Johnson’s other trips included Miami, Denver, Omaha, Nashville, Washington, D.C. and Huntington, West Virginia, the records show. He spent the most on individual travel over the three-year period at $35,792.
Elected in 2014, Johnson said that as a new board member he needed to gain exposure through conferences to quickly get up to speed on important issues.
“I'm new. And I took this on as a project on to learn what I need to do for the people,” he said.
Floyd, who logged the second-highest expense total at $35,739, essentially ushered the current levels of travel when he took over as board president in 2015.
Upon taking the president’s gavel, Floyd marshaled enough votes to lift a cap on conference attendance. Before then, the board limited travel to two conferences a year for the board president and vice-president, and one a year for other board members.
During the 2015 debate on the new policy, Floyd summed up his position by stating, “You have to go to grow.”
Floyd has lived by his words.
“I want to be the most effective school board member I can,” he said after seeing the three-year expenses totals. “If I see a conference that could better me, better me to serve the students, I'm going to do it.”
Floyd also said the overall travel expenses are “within budget.”
But numbers from the school system's budget office show otherwise. In fiscal 2016, the first year after the travel cap was lifted, $40,000 was budgeted for board trips, but $51,629 was spent.
In fiscal 2017, which ended in June, the board was under budget spending $36,797.
That puts the full two-year total since the travel cap in the red by $8.426.
The travel budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in June 2018, was lowered to $35,000 and as of December, the board spent $24,164.
Floyd said he was unaware that the board overspent its travel budget.
“Nobody's indicated to me, chief financial officer, that we had overrun the budget,” he said.
But Floyd said there's a more serious problem with board travel than exceeding the budget.
He said the two least-traveled board members are in violation of this state law by not logging at least six hours of annual training.
That law – R.S. 17:53 – states that “each member of a city, parish, and other local school board shall receive a minimum of six hours of training and instruction annually.”
The Louisiana School Boards Association website keeps track of board members' hours throughout the state. The LSBA website shows that Dale logged no training hours in 2015, while Morgan recorded only one hour each in 2016 and 2017.
“I see that Larry Dale and Mark Morgan have not fulfilled their responsibility under Louisiana law,” Floyd said.
With a wide gap in travel spending by members of board – and an equally wide gap in opinions about it – members on both sides of the debate have vowed to formally raise the issue at future meetings.
“As a result of your reporting and accumulating this,” Morgan told a WWL-TV reporter, “I think that's incumbent on us as a board to get a handle on it.”
When Floyd was told about Morgan’s plan to formally raise the travel issue at a future board meeting, he responded, “I look forward to that debate when it happens.”