Superintendent welcomes scrutiny after Disney World staff development trip

MAGIC KINGDOM: In mid-June, 61 staff with Garden City Public Schools attended the 22nd annual Model Schools Conference hosted at the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort. However, Superintendent Rick Atha says attendees were booked solid while in Orlando, Fla., leaving little time for excursions throughout the iconic theme park.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — The superintendent of Kansas’ ninth-largest school district says he welcomes scrutiny in the wake of a four-day, roughly $105,000 education conference for 61 staff members at Disney World in June.

Rick Atha, the top administrator for Garden City USD 457, said he has fielded a flurry of calls and interest surrounding the Florida trip since the issue surfaced in the public eye last week.

“Anytime someone’s school district, a public entity takes a trip, a staff development trip, then you see the dollar amount of $105,000 that’s going to catch attention,” Atha told Kansas Watchdog.

“I understand that, and it should,” he added. “I have no problem with being questioned on what we’re doing.”

USD 457 staff traveled to the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort for the 22nd annual Model Schools Conference on June 22-25, where Atha says faculty and administrators talked shop and swapped ideas with thousands of other educators invited to attend from across the country.

“One of the purposes for going to this conference is that there are 25 model schools there that look a lot like we do,” Atha noted.

Supt. Rick Atha

Supt. Rick Atha

That look, he elaborated, is one of diversity. Seventy-two percent of Garden City students receive free or reduced price lunches, 47 percent are English language learners and, on an average day, Atha said you can hear about 26 different languages echoing through the halls.

Combined with USD 457′s rural location, the superintendent told Kansas Watchdog it’s notoriously difficult to find qualified educators to fill staff slots, which is one reason why he said staff development trips like this are so crucial.

“We have to fill our teaching spots, and when we do get them here we try to keep them by training them and making them the best they can possibly be,” Atha said.

But Dave Trabert, president of the conservative Kansas Policy Institute, isn’t buying it.

“That’s about the district. If you’re student focused, you stay home and you focus on raising student achievement, and if you don’t know how to raise student achievement on your own you have a serious management problem,” Trabert said. “I would have to say it’s certainly not the best use of the money. You cannot go to a conference and learn anything about the needs of your kids. Conferences have no way of knowing what your needs are. They don’t know your kids.”

Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

Working out to around $1,730 per person, the trip was paid through a combination of funds, including $53,754.36 from the district’s professional development budgets; a $25,357.36 grant from the Kansas Department of Education; $19,121.96 from individual district building professional development funds; and $4,545.18 from federal Title I funds.

Staff who attended were also given a $25 per diem to help defray the cost of meals while attending the conference.

“I don’t think you could eat three meals in Orlando, Florida, on $25 per day, so I’m sure our teachers were out-of-pocket for food expenses on the trip,” Atha said.

While the $105,000 price tag for the trip can cause a bit of sticker shock, Atha said it’s important to keep the larger picture in mind. For one, he said, the district slashed the staff development budget following the Great Recession and its accompanying funding reductions, and USD 457 is doing its best to rework staff training into the budget where funding allows. He also pointed out the district’s expenses for the trip were a fraction of a percent of its total budget.

“Nothing illegal, unethical or immoral was done with this decision to train our teachers,” Atha said.

That being the case, Trabert said there’s still not an ounce of common sense in the decision.

“There’s nothing wrong with exchanging ideas, but one does not need to spend $100,000 to go to Orlando to do it,” Trabert said. “It’s free when you exchange it over the Internet, it’s virtually free when you exchange it over the telephone, and my goodness they pay dues to the Kansas Association of School Boards, that gives them access to 285 other districts in Kansas to exchange ideas.”

Atha noted that staffers were booked solid attending meetings and presentations from 7 a.m. to about 7 p.m. during the trip.

“These people didn’t have a lot of time,” he added.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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