City Life: Spend the money on kids, not conferences

Newport-Mesa school board member Martha Fluor, in her welcome message for this week's three-day meeting of the California School Board Assn., wrote, "In this era of fiscal constraints, I know that your decision to attend this year's conference is not one that was made lightly."

But in this "era of fiscal constraints," the Newport-Mesa school district is spending an estimated $19,720 for 11 people — six of the seven board members and five administrators — to attend the association conference in San Diego.

Fluor is not incurring any costs to the district, as she is association president.

But not everyone believes the conference is a good use of money when we are cutting back on programs that benefit students.

"I have requested that the board forgo conferences and redirect the funding to either be divided equally amongst the four high schools for athletics and art or to sixth-grade science camp," school Trustee Katrina Foley, who cannot attend because of a work conflict, wrote in an email. "It would be hypocritical to then go to the conference."

Is nearly $20,000 for a conference outrageous? Maybe, maybe not, but we can use at least three objective measurements to justify or condemn the decision.

The first is comparing Newport-Mesa's conference expenses with other districts. After all, compared with others, this board could be thrifty.

Unfortunately, that isn't the case.

"No one is attending, as we cut all food and conference budgets from our budget three years ago in order to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," Beverly Hills Unified school board member Brian Goldberg wrote in an email. "This board majority has been paying for any food we consume and any travel we take on behalf of the district for the past two years."

The Irvine Unified School District is sending only Supt. Terry Walker and two board members. Walker is spending just one night in San Diego and the board members are spending three. The total cost to taxpayers is about $3,000.

No one from the Laguna Beach Unified School District is attending.

The second measurement is whether the money could be put to better use.

All across the Newport-Mesa district, teachers are shelling out their own money for basic supplies. While that is not new, it is special this year because paying for these items is a greater hardship. A teacher's job should not be an expense.

The third measurement is whether any progress in the district is made as a result of attending the conference.

After dozens of conferences, no progress has been made at Pomona, Whittier and Wilson elementary schools in Costa Mesa, and one is even going backward.

Instead of sending a small army to San Diego, the district should send Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard, a school board member and a principal from one of the failing schools, to Plummer Elementary School in Los Angeles.

At "Plummer — where 90% of the students are poor and two-thirds begin school not fluent in English," Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks wrote, the "…Academic Performance Index score has risen by more than 200 points, to 862, in the last four years, outpacing schools around the state with similar demographics" ("Where poor students soar," Nov. 5). And it is, "one of the district's highest-scoring elementary schools."

The Newport-Mesa ambassadors, as it were, could learn in a day what will work and what won't work back home. It's a proven concept called "best practices," which not only saves money, it speeds success because it takes guesswork out of the process.

So, to answer my question about whether sending 11 people to a conference at a cost of almost $20,000 is outrageous: Yes, it most certainly is.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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