French trip of Barge staffers raises eyebrows

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Three high-level Georgia Department of Education officials, including Superintendent John Barge’s outgoing chief of staff, traveled to France late last year, pulling almost $9,400 from a fund set up for international exchanges.

The department initially said the French government had covered the cost of the trip but, when asked for the exact amount and date of the French payment, officials said the money came from a trust fund set up for international exchanges for students, staff and teachers.

The travel and official actions of Barge and his staff is under increasing scrutiny now that Barge has announced his plans to run for governor.

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Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Georgia taxpayers did not pay into the fund, which had a balance of $26,950 in July of 2012 but was down to $2,206.72 last month. There was initial confusion about how the French trip was paid for because of how long the fund has been around, he said.

A private donor, the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation — named after the wife of one of Coca-Cola’s original bottlers — helped establish the fund in 1994.

Joel Thornton, who was Barge’s chief of staff at the time of the trip, David Turner, director of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education at the department, and Greg Barfield, program specialist for World Languages and Global Initiatives, traveled to Nancy, France, from December 8 through December 14 to renew a memorandum of understanding between the department and the Academie of Nancy-Metz. Their trip cost a combined $9,386.03.

Thornton, who resigned from the department on Monday to run Barge’s campaign for governor, said the trip served as an opportunity to establish relationships with business officials in France and study how the French teach culinary arts. Georgia has established a series of career pathways, including culinary arts, that students must choose as they pursue their high school diploma.

Some questioned the wisdom of the trip, which is likely to be fodder for Barge’s political opponents as the governor’s race gets underway.

“This is a shocking abuse of authority and misuse of funds appropriated for students,” said William Perry, head of Georgia’s Common Cause, a non-partisan watchdog group. “This is the exact kind of thing that makes people throw their hands up and completely distrust government officials.”

Thornton and Cardoza said the fund was set up and has been used to help cover the cost of students, teachers and staff as they establish relationships and exchanges with counterparts in other parts of the world. The fund’s existence has saved taxpayer money and allowed for the types of exchanges that benefit Georgians, they argued.

Barge, who met with educators in South Korea in July, said the French trip was worth it.

“It helped bring more students and teachers, and ultimately administrators, from France for an exchange program and allowed some of our own students and teachers to visit France,” he said. “Any time you can get them to experience other cultures is worthwhile and gives them a competitive advantage.”

The amount of foreign travel by education officials in neighboring states varies. Florida officials do occasionally travel abroad. There is no prohibition against foreign travel by education officials in South Carolina, but no department officials there made a foreign trip over the past year, South Carolina Department of Education spokesman Jay W. Ragley said.

Yasha Heidari, a former legal counsel to the State Ethics Commission, said he’s surprised education officials here weren’t more cautious about taking such a trip.

“It’s possible that the trip could serve the public interest,” he said. “But the real problem is that it looks bad and it smells bad. It sounds like this trust fund is meant to benefit students and teachers, and it just sounds fishy.”

State records for the 2012 fiscal year, the first full year Barge was in office, show that his office’s travel was comparable to the governor’s office. A state log obtained through an Open Records request shows the superintendent and his staff flew for 43 hours on fixed-wing aircraft, a tally which doesn’t include helicopters. The governor’s office flew for 45 hours.

Thornton said he has no doubt that the questioning of the trip he and former colleagues took to France is “purely political.”

“But everybody has a right to to question the use of taxpayer funds,” he said. “We’re all taxpayers. Had the trust fund not been available, I would not have made this trip.”

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