DeKalb school employees at Hollywood conference

Officials argue that the money for the conference is not coming from DeKalb property taxes but from federal funds that are intended, in part, to pay for training that will lead to improved school performance.

But the expenditure comes as the district is trying to trim $56 million from its budget. Officials have proposed teacher furloughs, slashing pre-kindergarten classes and cutting programs to save money.

School officials said the trip to the America’s Choice conference was organized in August. .

“These monies would do absolutely nothing to offset the $56 million deficit we have today,” Superintendent Crawford Lewis told the AJC Thursday. “We can’t give someone a raise with federal funds.”

But the district can fund new teachers, textbooks, after-school programs, computers and other equipment with Title I dollars – which are to be used to improve academic achievement for economically disadvantaged students, said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. The federal money can also pay for professional development like the conference, he said.

“Rather than use dollars for teachers and principals to buy more supplies, we chose this. We find very little of those supplies end up benefiting individual students as it relates to achievement levels,” Lewis said. “We sent teachers because these are the people who will come back and teach our young people.”

Last year, the school system paid America’s Choice, a program which provides professional development to educators, $8 million of the $52 million it received under the federal stimulus program. The six-year contract was designed to help improve academics at 40 of DeKalb’s 93 Title I schools -- all of which have not consistently made adequate yearly progress, Lewis said.

Under the contract, DeKalb agreed to send school staff to the program’s conference at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles. However, the conference fees -- including $91,000 for registration and $290,000 for hotels, flights and meals -- were not included in that $8 million stimulus package. The district had to take that money from Title I funds.

About 45 teachers, 50 reading and math coaches, 39 principals and 32 assistant principals, with about 20 central office staff, will spend three days learning new teaching models for math, science and reading.

The district also has to pay for substitute teachers to cover classes while those 45 teachers are away.

The school employees boarded a plane in Atlanta on Wednesday and are scheduled to return Saturday.

They will then train the staff at each of their schools on the teaching methods they learned. Lewis said it would not be efficient to send only several teachers and have them train the whole district because of the size of the school system, which is the third largest in the state.

“If we were going to send five or 10 or even 15 and have them retrain everyone, the year would be over before we could train all the teachers,” he said. “Time is of the essence.”

To Bill Armstrong, the timing for the trip is all wrong. He and dozens of other parents at Huntley Hills Elementary School in Chamblee, a Title I school, have protested a proposed cut to the district’s three Montessori programs. Expenses like the California trip make that cut even more difficult, he said.

“These things like the trip and his raise are not budget busters themselves, but to me it seems their priorities are out of line,” said Armstrong, president of the school council at Huntley Hills.

Last month, about 250 school employees, who are facing pay cuts, protested after the board gave Lewis a $15,000 raise.

Lewis said it’s too early to tell whether the contract with America’s Choice is paying off, but he said the knowledge learned at the conference will benefit schools just as much as some other programs.

“It’s a good use of dollars particularly if at the end of the day the student achievement of our young people is improved,” Lewis said.

Lewis is not attending the conference.

Cost per employee

  • Conference registration: $495
  • Hotel: $199 (for one or two people)
  • Average flight: $300

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