Reacting to a WWL-TV Eyewitness Investigation that revealed a steep increase in travel expenses since a cap was lifted four years ago, the Jefferson Parish School Board voted Wednesday to limit expenses to $3,000 a year for each member.
The investigation showed that after a travel limit was lifted in 2015, two board members averaged more than $11,000 a year in travel expenses for school-related conferences throughout the country, including trips to Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Boston, Miami, Denver, Omaha, Nashville, Washington, D.C. and Huntington, West Virginia.
The two top spenders – Cedric Floyd and Ricky Johnson – each tallied more than $35,000 over the three-year period ending in 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 $2,700 on total travel.
“How can we set an example of good government when some school board members are flying all over the country?” said Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge, who introduced the new policy. “Certain school board members just feel they have a blank check to travel wherever they want, whenever they want.”
The final vote was 8-1 in favor of the new limits, but two opponents of the cap – Floyd and Johnson – voted with the majority in a procedural maneuver that allows them to revisit the issue at future meetings.
Floyd quickly took advantage of that strategy, placing the issue on the April agenda for re-consideration.
“There was nothing to indicate where the $3,000 amount came from. It has no relevance. It seemed to come out of thin air,” Floyd said.
Floyd said he is calling for a study to determine how much it would cost for board members to obtain 20 hours of training at conferences each year, the amount set by the Louisiana School Boards Association to be designated as an “LSBA Certified Board Member.”
The “certified” status is strictly voluntary. State law, however, does require that board members get a minimum six hours of training at conferences each year.
Denapolis-Bosarge said the $3,000 limit should allow board members to get their required hours by attending one in-state LSBA conference and one out-of-state conference.
But board member Larry Dale, who rarely attends conferences and has in the past failed to log his required six hours, questioned whether the new threshold is too high.
“I think $3,000 is too much,” Dale said. “I think we should get one conference a year and if you have a burning need to go to another, go to the board for approval.”
Board member Marion Bonura, who cast the only vote against the cap, said the debate was not driven by a search for a reasonable travel policy, but by the political dynamics that have divided the board into two factions.
“This isn’t about our school kids, it’s a personal vendetta from the other side,” Bonura said. “I don’t mind having a cap, but with $3,000 we can’t do anything. I just think it’s too low.”
Among its findings, WWL-TV’s investigation exposed that Floyd and Johnson spent more than $1,600 on a luxury hotel and valet parking to attend a three-day conference in New Orleans in September rather than drive in each day.
Floyd and Johnson defended their decision to stay at the upscale Roosevelt Hotel, but other board members blasted the expenses as unnecessary, launching the discussion that led to Wednesday’s vote to rein in expenses.
“We need to show we are fiscally responsible if we’re going to go the public and ask the people to vote to use their hard-earned money for things such as school improvements,” Denapolis-Bosarge said.