School superintendent major user of state helicopter

Georgia’s school superintendent has to travel across the state as part of his job, but unlike many commuters he gets to soar above the gridlock.

Last year, Superintendent Richard Woods would have had to drive about 4,000 miles to reach the schools and events he visited across the state, according to his travel records. But he didn’t drive on every trip because as superintendent he has access to a Georgia Department of Natural Resources helicopter service, which he used more than any other state official. The flights cost taxpayers $17,000.

When people hear about it – those who grind through Atlanta traffic – the road rage surfaces.

“When I’ve got a business meeting in town, I’ve got to sit on (Georgia) 400,” said Lauren Simon, a Forsyth County resident. She noticed a Facebook post about Woods landing in a helicopter at Johns Creek Elementary School in January, and complained. “Why are we paying for it when our schools are a shambles,” she said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain DNR flight logs. Several state agencies use the service, which costs $450 an hour. Only the Department of Economic Development used it more, but no one person flew as often as Woods. The economic development trips were split among 14 economic development staffers and their guests.

The Georgia Department of Public Safety offers a different flight service, mainly to the governor and to the leaders of the state Senate and House. Gov. Nathan Deal is the only state official to log more helicopter time than Woods, according to flight logs from DPS and DNR.

The DNR flight logs say the newly-elected school superintendent flew 38 hours in 2015.

Education department spokesman Matt Cardoza was often among the co-passengers. He said Woods flew to save time, and sometimes time is money. For instance, flying to Savannah and back in November took under four hours. By car, it would have taken more than seven hours in good traffic. The flight cost nearly $1,500 more than driving would have under the state mileage reimbursement rate, but Cardoza said a ground trip might have meant a hotel stay and more meals on state expense accounts.

There were also occasions that required Woods to crisscross the state before lunch. Rosemont Elementary in LaGrange, Alexander Magnet in Macon and Johns Creek Elementary in Suwanee had won National Blue Ribbon School status, so he traveled in January to recognize them. He had to be back at his Atlanta office for an afternoon meeting and media interviews, according to his calendar.

In September, Woods visited seven Georgia schools south of Atlanta — from Tifton to Ashburn between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Flight time: 5.7 hours, for $2,565. By car, he would have covered 500 miles over eight hours, at a cost of less than $300 under the state mileage reimbursement.

Cardoza said Woods meets with constituents daily, and has a “very busy” schedule. “Because of this, he has to use alternative means of travel on occasion, in order to be present at multiple schools and fulfill meeting obligations in the office.”

Woods’ predecessors John Barge and Kathy Cox also used the helicopter service.

State code says it’s the superintendent’s duty “to visit, as often as possible” Georgia’s counties to ensure state education law is being followed, to inspect operations, to give speeches and to do “such other acts as he may deem in the interest of public education.”

And $17,055 for flying is a small portion of his budget. The state budgeted $8.5 billion on education this year, funneling it through DoE to the school districts. The department gets $4 million of that for staffing, travel and other expenses, and budgeted $95,000 for travel.

Had Woods driven instead of flown last year, the mileage reimbursement would have cost about $2,200, saving about $15,000 — nearly half what a starting teacher is paid on the state salary scale.

Cardoza said Woods is careful about helicopter usage, and has driven as far as Savannah. And he once hopped off a helicopter from south Georgia to the Capitol to drive the rest of the way to a school in Roswell.

Edmund Trafford, a taxpayer in Johns Creek, said he’s not all that bothered by the helicopter use, given the superintendent’s legal mandate to travel around the state, but said he’d like to see them used sparingly. Teleconferencing tools that didn’t exist when the law was crafted could reduce the need to zip back to the office for meetings after visits around the state, he said, adding that trips of a hundred miles or less ought to be done by car whenever possible.

“He can have a luxurious car,” Trafford said, “but why is he exempt or immune from the traffic that I have to endure?”

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