Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning just slammed the barn door after the horses left town. Browning has acknowledged the impropriety of district employees traveling to an out-of-state conference absent formal School Board approval and pledged it wouldn’t happen again.
Good thing. The July 21-24 trip to North Carolina by eight employees led to questions of a potential Sunshine Law violation and forced the elected School Board to consider the public expense after the administrators already had left town. Board members questioned the trip, but eventually acquiesced during a July 22 meeting without specific information about cost or the identity of the traveling party.
The public blessing also came after assistant superintendent Amelia Larson, who headed the traveling contingent, contacted board members privately to brief them on the planned trip. Larson told Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek she called the board “before I did anything to see if that was okay. All five of them said it was okay.” Despite that admission, both Larson and Browning contend the district did not poll the board in advance of its public vote. They should re-read Florida’s open-government law if they truly champion transparency.
The Sunshine law that prohibits elected officials from discussing the public’s business privately. Opinions from the Florida Attorney General’s Office also say staffers should not contact board members privately to seek their positions prior to a vote in a public meeting. “After all of the members of the commission have verbally indicated their position on a given matter, the director alone becomes privy to information denied to the general public,” says a 1975 opinion.
The evolving stories from district officials also fail to build public confidence about the legitimacy of the whole episode. Larson said the invitation to the conference came too late to seek School Board approval in a timely manner. Browning later contradicted that statement, saying the staff had ample time to present the request to the board at its July 1 meeting, nearly three weeks before the employees left town. Well, which is it?
The School Board’s own policies recognize the value of conferences and encourages attendance. Money in the district’s professional development accounts is available specifically for that purpose. In this case, the trip was financed by federal money.
Regardless, the lack of information sparked public scrutiny from board members who questioned the size of the traveling party and the cost. No wonder. The final tab totaled $11,738 for conference fees, airfare, hotel, rental cars, meals, mileage and parking for the eight-person trip to Mooresville, N.C. to learn about computerized instruction.
The board should have had that information before approving the expense and Browning is correct to end the after-the-fact authorization of public expenditures. He should also advance his staff’s professional development by adding a refresher course in open government.