I recently reviewed five years of travel expenses for school Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard.
Before revealing what I found, it is important you understand why I am qualified to pass judgment.
Since 1983, I have attended, spoken, exhibited and organized dozens of conferences.
In all the years I traveled, I never purchased anything from a minibar, never charged a movie to my room, never ordered room service and tried whenever possible to eat economically, avoiding hotel restaurants as they are notoriously more expensive than outside eateries.
In cities such as Philadelphia, New York or Chicago, I avoided expensive taxis into town in favor of the trains, for about $5 each way. In other cities, I preferred a group shuttle service, which often cost far less than a taxi, the transportation of last resort.
I kept expenses down for one reason: It wasn't my money. Travel with me on a pleasure trip and there's no end to the fun. But when I am spending someone else's money, I am a miser.
After all those years of conference interaction, the list of ideas or programs that were implemented as result could fit on the head of a pin.
In 2006, the first year of his contract here, Hubbard went out of town once, to Burlingame for a three-day superintendent's conference. The following calendar year, he traveled seven times for a total of 17 days. In 2008, travel became routine. That year, Hubbard traveled 12 times and spent 22 days at conferences, meetings and events. In 2009, it was eight trips for 18 days. In 2010, there were 11 trips and 21 days out of the office.
This year, the first full year since he has been indicted on three felony charges related to his previous job in Beverly Hills, Hubbard has traveled only to Sacramento for one day in October. None of these totals include the travel days, nor does it include local day or partial day trips to surrounding communities to smaller events. There have been dozens of those, all of which pull the superintendent away from the real business of overseeing the progress of our schools.
When I met with Sherri Snyder, the district's coordinator of administrative Services, to go over the district's responses to my findings, I explained that there are both philosophical differences in the expenses and some that are simply inexcusable.
There are numerous minibar purchases on the hotel folios, including $19.26 in Chicago during a trip in November 2009. That conference included round-trip airport service in a luxury car that cost taxpayers $216. A shuttle service would have cost no more than $55, not including a tip.
Snyder acknowledged that I was correct on the luxury car charges but offered no comment on the expense. This was the only transportation of its kind I found. All other airport to hotel travel was via taxi.
Hubbard was no stranger to room service. Breakfast charges for one three-day trip to Sacramento in 2009 were $42.98, $34.28 and lunch was $40.80. There were room services charges of $72.84 for one meal in January 2009 and $36.91 and 25.39 in December 2009.
There were more, but you get the idea. Here, Snyder told me that Hubbard often does not eat three meals a day and that many meals are taken in the hotel or via room service to avoid the cost of dinner out with round-trip taxi.
In my many years of travel, I can recall only two hotels that were not located within walking distance to at least a couple of restaurants. Both were in remote areas of the country.
In December 2010, Hubbard bought Internet service for his room at $29.90. I claimed it was curious, considering that taxpayers are paying $100 a month for his cell phone service, which could and should include Internet access. Snyder responded that "This is for Internet connection at the hotel for his laptop. [The] $100 phone allowance is for his cell phone only." In this age of technology, our superintendent should have a smart phone with Internet access.
Last year, Hubbard rented a car for $66.26 a day, then signed up for all of the insurance – a well-known travel waste - at an additional $31.98 a day. But American Express, which Hubbard used for travel, includes auto rental insurance coverage as one of its benefits. Snyder responded that "[Hubbard] was not aware that AMEX covers him for this."
I can live with the admission of a mistake, but this was in 2010. Hubbard had been traveling for years by this time and should have known better than to buy the insurance.
These are travel misdemeanors, not felonies. But in a recession, anyone spending public funds has an obligation to a more judicious use of the money.
Though a case could be made that state superintendents of schools can benefit from a meeting or meetings to discuss high-level issues taking place in Sacramento, conferences and meetings are the wrong approach to improving schools, which is a top priority now. When we have failing schools, as there are in Costa Mesa, the superintendent belongs here, not in off-site meetings and conferences. If those meetings and conferences are supposed to be showing Hubbard how to improve schools, it's not working.
Another reason to drastically reduce travel expenses can be found on the Facebook page, "Newport-Mesa Schools Wish List." There, you'll find requests for donations to local schools. Sonora and Killybrooke elementary schools need pencils.
In this "era of fiscal constraint," a term used by school board member Martha Fluor in her welcome message to attendees of this year's California School Board Assn. annual meeting, the district should walk the walk.
My recommendations are as follows:
1) The school board should be embracing the technology it says our kids need to succeed by taking the lead in promoting webinars and video conferencing instead of expensive travel.
2) The district needs to follow the example of the private sector and develop written travel guidelines covering expenses such as rental cars, meals and incidentals.
3) Increase meeting and conference accountability by requiring a written report of the event that includes the direct benefits to our students.
Everyone in government is responsible for belt-tightening today, and if I need to educate them, I will. I'll call the program, "No Administrator Left Behind."
STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.