Lee County School district going to conferences at ritzy resorts

Matt Grant

Lee County School district going to conferences at ritzy resorts

By Matt Grant. CREATED Oct 31, 2011

FORT MYERS - With record unemployment most people probably aren't thinking about staying at luxury five-star resorts. But while you might not be going, you're paying for Lee Count y school employees to do just that.

A Fox 4 investigation discovered your tax dollars are paying for the district to attend education conferences from California to Canada and Nevada to New York.

The district spent $499,611 going to conferences and meetings at fancy resorts over the past two years, invoices show.

Back in June the district spent $25,350 booking 30 rooms at the Ritz Carlton in Orlando for an education conference. The hotel advertises itself as a "breathtaking luxury resort" complete with  a 40,000 square foot spa and marble bathrooms with "plush terry robes and slippers."

"The Ritz Carlton is probably one of the premier hotels in the entire world," said former Lee County school board member Bob Chilmonik, who is considering running for re-election. "Why in the world would we be sending these folks there?"

Over the past two years, district employees and teachers have traveled to No Child Left Behind, Title 1, AVID and International Baccalaureate conferences, along with other education-related conferences held at golf resorts, Hiltons and Marriotts in New York City, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Reno, Chicago, New Orleans and Quebec.

"It's an absolute abuse," said Chilmonik. "And I'll say that again an absolute abuse of taxpayer's money...We have teachers spending their own money for supplies and we're going off on these junkets?...It leaves you spellbound."

It's a spell he wants to see broken and one he railed against several years ago when administrators were going to conferences in Las Vegas.

We wanted to ask the new superintendent Joseph Burke about these trips. But even with three weeks notice we were told he wouldn't be available because his schedule "doesn't allow for an interview in the next couple weeks."

District spokesperson Joe Donzelli did talk with us. He says there's nothing luxurious about these conferences.

'Mandatory to go to Ritz Carlton?'

"They're not being wined and dined," said Donzelli. "Those are all education-related conferences. We have no say so on where they're held, when they're held or how they're held."

Donzelli says the trips are part of "professional development" - keeping teachers and programs, like IB and AVID, current. In some cases, he says the conferences are mandatory - a condition of the grant.

"The problem that we run into is we have to go because a lot of the grant dollars that are provided to us specify there are certain dollars that need to be spent on professional development," said Donzelli.

"So you had to go, you had no choice?," asked Fox 4 reporter Matt Grant.

"That is correct," said Donzelli.

"Show me in writing it's mandatory to go to a Ritz Carlton," said Chilmonik. "It's absolutely a ridiculous statement."

As the district trims millions from its budget, Chilmonik says employees should be asked to stay off site and less expensive places to save cash.

"Just because these conferences are held at these Hilton's, Ritz Carlton's, golf resorts it doesn't mean the people going have to stay there, right?," asked Grant.

"Well it doesn't necessarily mean that," said Donzelli. "But it all depends on where it is...I would venture to say we're not going to put someone in a position where they're going to stay at a place where they fear for their safety just because it's going to save some dollars."

Where are your tax dollars going?

A couple travel invoices show the district spent the following just on hotels:

  • $823 at the Peabody in Orlando for a reading conference featuring Goldie Hawn.
  • $800 for a FAFSA conference at a Miami golf resort.
  • $1782 for a discipline workshop at the Disney Hilton.
  • $340 for a technology conference at the Hilton Sea World which included a four hour "night out" at Epcot.
  • $958 for a resource teacher to stay five nights at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif. for a mosquito convention (paid for by a Mosquito Control grant).

None of the records we received factored in airfare, meals or whether employees reimbursed the district for any expenses.

Nothing 'frivolous'

"We don't spend money frivolously when it comes to travel," said Donzelli, who told us the district has cut back its travel expenses over the past couple years.

He says Curriculum and Staff Development must approve the conferences ahead of time and each one must have a purpose.

"The whole point of all of that is to make sure at the end of the day," said Donzelli, "the teacher standing in front of your or my child's class is the absolute best they can be."

But Chilmonik says that can still be accomplished by staying at places that won't break the bank.

"People want our students to be world class," said Chilmonik. "They want them to have the very finest tools to work with. But they want the money to be spent wisely and what you showed me is not a wise use of taxpayer money."

The district says they would "love" to do teleconferencing if it was an option. They say they will consider staying off-site and sending fewer people to come back and train others if it's a feasible option.

Matt Grant, Reporter
mgrant@fox4now.com