Suburban Schools Send 735 People to Chicago for a Weekend Conference Costs Taxpayers $574,197

Article excerpt

It cost suburban taxpayers $574,197.48 to send 735 school board members and district administrators back to the classroom.

The price tag for a weekend-long conference last November includes rooms at downtown Chicago hotels and many free meals, but the heftiest portion of the tab comes from the nearly $300,000 spent on registration fees for seminars, workshops and classes, according to an analysis of 92 suburban school districts conference spending.

Some districts sent a crowd, the biggest by Naperville Unit District 203, which sent 19 people at a cost of $7,560 in conference fees alone. Some covered hundreds of dollars in costs for representatives who never made it to the conference, like Warren Township High School District 121.

School district leaders say the conference provides unique educational and professional development opportunities, but critics argue the information is available elsewhere cheaper or for free.

At $375 per person $400 a head for late registration conference fees alone can quickly add up. More than a third of the 92 suburban districts studied sent 10 or more people to the conference. Several school districts also covered "pre-conference" classes for school employees that generally add between $140 and $220.

"We got a lot out of it, and we constantly evaluate what we do," said District 203 school board President Mike Jaensch, one of 19 people from the school district who attended the conference at a total cost of $17,183.58. "Its a fair thing to look at what we spend and the value, but these conferences are valuable."

District 203 spent the most of any of the 92 suburban districts analyzed at this years conference.

"We dont want to be sending people just to be sending people," said District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges. "Part of it was me being new in my position, and we also have several administrators new to their positions."

Rosemont Elementary School District 78 was one of three suburban districts among the 92 analyzed that didnt send anyone to the conference this year. Superintendent Kevin Anderson doesnt think his board will suffer because of it.

"I dont think were in harms way," he said. "(Organizers) do a good job of communicating what happens at the conference, and we get information that way, too."

Like District 78, Northbrook Elementary District 27 and Rondout Elementary District 72 based near Libertyville also did not send anyone to the conference. But Anderson still believes the conference sponsored jointly by the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials is "important," a sentiment echoed by nearly every school district official.

Some critics contend the conference is a significant expense at a time when districts are already stretching budgets.

"Its kind of a junket, and they use Chicago as a draw," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "There is value in this, but the question of whether its worth the expense is something the taxpayers should decide."

While the 89 suburban districts that sent representatives to the conference spent $295,649.89 on registration and class fees, they spent almost the same amount on hotel rooms, food, travel and other incidental costs.

Next week, this column will examine how the districts spent tax dollars to house, feed and transport conference attendees.

Last week, this column highlighted spending on movies, limousine rides and valet parking by Fox Lake Elementary District 114, which helped raise the districts total costs to $13,756. …