(KMOV)-- When I questioned East St. Louis School Superintendent Theresa Saunders about how much she traveled during the 2009-10 school year, she issued a challenge to me: If "you think I was excessive, prove it!"
I accept her challenge.
According to records provided to me by East St. Louis District 189, Dr. Saunders spent more than $15,000 in tax money traveling during the last school year. The trips include visits to Boston, Salt Lake City, Austin, Cincinnati, twice to New York, three times to Chicago, and twice to Washington, including a weeklong stay in D.C. that cost taxpayers more than $4,600. Last summer, I investigated spending for training and travel in two dozen local districts. Dr. Saunders spent more than double the amount of the Hazelwood superintendent's office, which had the second highest total.
We don't know why Dr. Saunders went on all those trips, how she spent the money, or what specific skills or programs she learned that may have helped the district. Eight months ago, we asked her for records that would have answered those questions, but the district refused to provide them.
Based on the incomplete records the district DID give us, it appears Dr. Saunders was traveling out of the region on at least 25 school days during the 2009-10 school year. Last fall during the current school year, Dr. Saunders used some of her vacation time to go to China.
How does Dr. Saunders' travel compare to superintendents in other districts? The Fox superintendent spent $1,903 on travel/training during the 2009-10 school year. Ferguson-Florissant's superintendent spent $2218. University City's superintendent spent $5458. Some superintendents, including those in Alton, Saint Charles, Edwardsville and St. Louis City rarely travel.
Dr. Garrett Duncan, the Director of Doctoral Studies in Education at Washington University and a consultant to local school districts, told me that "you do not have have strong leadership from a far. You cannot be a remote leader. You have to be present." Dr. Duncan also told the travel "seems to be excessive." By taking a trip to China during the school year, Dr. Duncan says superintendent Saunders showed "that her job, her main job, is not a priority for her.....even if she paid for the trip."
The school board also seems to be travel happy. Some board members traveled repeatedly to out of state conferences at a time when some school boards aren't traveling at all. Some board members went to Denver, Washington, Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas.
Board member Kinnis Williams, Sr. initially insisted that he didn't go to Texas a year ago. Then, when I showed him the partial travel records for his trip, he said "Oh, okay, I did."
It gets better. Then, Williams claimed he couldn't remember the trip because "I travel a lot." I asked him what he learned on the trip. He responded "if you can just tell me what I went there for."
According to records provided by the district, it spent roughly $290,000 on travel and training during the last school year, but much of it was spent far from the school district. The most popular long distance destination was Chicago. More than 50 employees and board members went there, spending at least $65,000, enough to pay the salary and benefits of an experienced teacher for the same school year.
Dr. Saunders defended trips taken by the school board and challenged me to "prove" that her travel was excessive. "The burden of proof is on her," according to Dr. Duncan.
With all due respect to superintendent Saunders, I believe we met her challenge.