Jefferson Parish School Board member Ricky Johnson lives in Gretna. The Roosevelt, one of the state’s top-rated luxury hotels, is about five-and-a-half miles away in downtown New Orleans.
For Johnson to drive from his house to The Roosevelt takes about 16 minutes.
But when Johnson attended an education conference at the nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel in September, he stayed at The Roosevelt for three nights at a cost to taxpayers of $215-a-night.
Johnson was joined by board member Cedric Floyd, who lives in Kenner. In addition to separate rooms, both men also paid more than $50 day for valet parking, bringing the final bill for the three-night stay to just over $1,600.
Jefferson Parish School Superintendent Isaac Joseph also attended the conference from Sept. 28 to Sept. 30, but he drove in each day from his home in Gretna and parked for $20 a day.
“It was just across the river for me,” Joseph said. “I don't typically stay in hotels for local conferences, but the board may have a separate set of rules.”
In fact, the board does have a policy governing travel expenses, and current School Board President Mark Morgan said Johnson and Floyd violated that policy.
The policy provides for payment or reimbursement “whenever any school board member attends any accredited meeting or conference outside of the metropolitan area of New Orleans.”
“It's extremely disappointing,” Morgan said, “especially because Mr. Floyd champions himself as an expert on board policy and state law. And this is a clear, clear violation of both, where he's personally gaining at taxpayer expense.”
Morgan was referring to a state policy limiting travel expenses to trips outside of a 30-mile of an official’s “domicile.”
Board Member Larry Dale said that beyond parish and state policy, it should be a matter of common sense that using public money to stay in a neighboring parish is wrong.
“It's totally unbelievable to me. I can't believe they actually did that,” Dale said. “The 17th Street Canal isn't that hard to cross.”
Johnson and Floyd defended their three-day New Orleans excursion. Johnson, who is a minister, said it was the only way to get away from his church duties and concentrate on the conference.
“I didn't pick the hotel,” Johnson said. “But what happened was, being a pastor, it's really hard to get together and be away from my congregation. When they know I'm in the city (Gretna), it's really hard for them not to reach out to me.”
A reporter asked Johnson whether congregants calling him on his cell phone posed the same distraction.
“But there's a difference,” he said. “When you see your pastor's car at home and you have something going on, you come and knock on the door, you're coming by, whatever.”
Floyd, who faces about a 25-minute drive to downtown New Orleans from Kenner, said the conference schedule was packed and he didn’t want to be delayed by traffic.
“Well, they had an eight o'clock meeting and early morning meetings throughout the conference,” Floyd said. “There were also nighttime events, sometimes going as late as 10 o’clock.”
When asked about the board’s travel policy, Floyd pointed to a separate school board policy that allows reimbursement “for travel to board meetings and other local duties” that require driving outside of Jefferson Parish. That policy does not address overnight hotel expenses, but Floyd noted that public money was used to pay for hotel rooms in Covington during a board retreat in July.
That retreat, at the $119-a-night Southern Hotel, lasted two nights, but it was also considered a mandatory board function.
Morgan said that whether it's New Orleans or Covington or out-of-state, conference travel and expenses should be capped at a reasonable amount.
The travel issue comes at a time when the school board is facing big financial challenges, such as how to raise teacher and staff salaries and upgrade aging buildings. The board is currently debating when to go back to voters to increase taxes to raise teacher pay after a similar millage was rejected in November by 484 votes.
Before going back to voters to ask for money, Morgan said will first propose some changes to rein in travel expenses.
“There's a troubling history with some board members with the amount of money that was done on traveling,” Morgan said. “That's certainly something I'm going to address with the fellow board members as the incoming president.”