Is Spring ISD misusing taxpayers' money?

October 27, 2009 2:15:22 AM PDT
Have you cut down on your travel in these tough economic times? Not the folks in the Spring Independent School District. They set a record for travel this summer. And we're investigating your money spent in the name of the kids.

A Caribbean cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. Have you ever seen the sunset there?

How about five days in a mountain paradise? What a portrait of nature.

A trip to one of Florida's fanciest beach resorts. Guess what? You paid for all of it.

"It's a lack of accountability and it's sad," said Spring ISD taxpayer Tom Matthews.

It's not the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It's money spent by Spring ISD, but it's all for the kids.

The Spring school family gathers in August for its pre-school message from Superintendent Ralph Draper.

"You've got to come to work ready every day," he said. "It's not the type of job where you can say, 'I'm going to take it easy today.'"

But does that include a zoo day?

"Why do they have to do that?" school grandparent Guillermo Barboza asked.

When 13 Undercover asked the school district, Draper said, "Let me tell you what I'm not going to do, I'm not going to conduct an inquiry through the news."

For the National School Board Convention in San Diego, CA, Spring ISD would spend $27,000 just for registration, airfare and $300-per-night hotel rooms.

The itinerary shows a Thursday flight to San Diego, but the conference didn't start until Saturday. Friday morning was set aside for a trip to the zoo.

"I think it's sad that they wasted that time and money to do it," Matthews said.

San Diego does have a famous zoo, but how does that help Guillermo Barboza's grandchildren?

"That's not right at all," Barboza said.

In 2007, the National School Board Convention was in San Francisco. Again, taxpayers paid for thousands in hotel bills so Spring's top brass could take a day-long tour of a Sonoma winery.

"Spring has always had a motto, 'It's all about the kids,'" Matthews said. "And I just think time and time and time again, it's not about the kids."

"If we don't develop some sense of trust, some kind of rapport with each other, we're not going to be very effective as a school board," said Mel Smith with the Spring ISD School Board.

How about this for a summertime sacrifice -- a trip to St. Croix for an educational workshop. St. Croix is one of the Virgin Islands.

Spring's elementary chief Marilyn Dennison was going there this summer. The conference schedule ended Thursday afternoon, but Spring ISD paid for hotel through Sunday. Was this a vacation weekend to be billed to taxpayers?

The trip to St. Croix was cancelled due to budget cuts, but Spring still lost $600 in registration fees.

Though that trip was cancelled, district bills show that the system paid for nearly $400,000 in travel this summer. This amount includes the superintendent's nine-day trip to China.

Spring taxpayers had to just pay for the $900 registration, the flight to New York and one night hotel fare because a Chinese group paid the rest.

The schedule said Draper only had to visit two Chinese classrooms. On some days, sightseeing was the only thing on the schedule. The superintendent said he didn't get to see tigers on the attack at the Northeastern Tiger Garden. Blood thirsty tourists seem to just love it. It was on the schedule.

"I can't fathom what the reason was for going on this trip," Matthews said.

By the way, no one in Spring ISD teaches Chinese. The district doesn't even offer a Chinese culture program.

In July, the superintendent's annual visit to the famed Breakers resort on Palm Beach for what's called the Superintendents Leadership Conference.

When 13 Undercover questioned Draper about his travel, Draper said, "I refuse to conduct an inquiry through the news."

During 2007, the superintendent's hotel bill from 2007 was $508, but this year, the hotel bill for the very same conference at the very same place was more than $1,349.

The conference begins late Sunday, but the superintendent and his wife went there on Friday morning. So did curriculum chief Dalane Buillion.

"What I can explain is that i wouldn't conduct an inquiry through the news," said Draper. "I don't think it's a fair process." In a written statement, both Spring administrators said they went to the conference two days early to avoid holiday travel on the Fourth of July weekend. As a result, taxpayers picked up the tab for their free resort weekend.

By the way, the Independence Day weekend is not known for its busy air travel.

This is not the only time this conference helped Superintendent Draper defray the expenses of a Florida vacation.

"Ultimately, I know Dr. Draper has got nothing but the most keen loyalty to the children and to the citizens of our district and he is of the utmost integrity," said Smith.

Last week, kids at a new Spring elementary school dedication got a life lesson from the superintendent.

"Children, I want to encourage you not to stop the questions," Draper said.

When we tried to ask questions, the superintendent ordered cops to throw us out.

The superintentent said his travel is necessary for his educational vision. On Tuesday, 13 Undercover will show you one of the biggest travel expenses for their year in Spring. One hint -- there's a cruise involved. Even if you don't have kids there, you're paying for it.

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