Spring ISD's spending leaves people puzzled

HOUSTON [MORE: Spring ISD's response to our report]
[MORE: Letter from Spring ISD's superintendent]

A summer trip to Cozumel, Mexico. Nice beach. Great diving, and a cruise ship brings you to the island paradise.

Check out the onboard casino and the miniature golf course. You didn't get to go -- but you paid the bill. And it's all in the name of education, Spring ISD style.

"Really?" said one parent.

We asked, "You didn't know about the cruise?"

"No," she answered.

A four-night Caribbean cruise -- that's where Spring ISD trains the teachers who will teach other teachers how to teach the kids to play chess, in between the shopping in Key West and the visit to Cozumel, of course.

The first three days on the boat there's only five hours of chess training. No wonder the chess vendor calls it lots of fun.

The First Move curriculum says only one teacher needs to be trained per campus. Spring has 25 elementary schools, yet 76 Spring employees have already taken the cruise.

Some principals even used their own campus money to go along to watch the training. Imagine the sacrifice -- interrupting your summer vacation to spend five long days on a cruise.

But it's all for the kids.

First Move claims chess can help second and third graders improve math and reading skills, and self-esteem. And all Spring elementary schools now have to teach an hour long class of chess at least once a week in place of other subjects.

Vandi Redfern's son loves to play.

"He loves it," she said. "And I think it's a great idea for him to be learning it. It helps him mentally."

The queen of the chess program is Wendy Fisher. She made a visit to Northgate Elementary School this month, where they even have a life-sized chess set for the kids to play with.

The chess lady sang with the kids, but she was too busy to talk with us on camera.

"The deal is somebody got something free," Spring taxpayer Tom Matthews said.

Dalane Buillion got something free. She's chief of the Curriculum Department for Spring ISD. The vendor has paid for her to be on the cruise twice. Her family was on board once. Buillion said they paid their way. But no question, she's a big fan.

Just look at the chess vendor's website: "Dalane Bouillion, Ed.D. Associate Superintendent, Curriculum & Instructional Services, Spring Independent School District. I give the First Move program the highest ratings possible!"

Buillion said the chess program provides "authentic engagement for students, and allows them to learn via a hands-on approach."

One of Buillion's jobs is to monitor the 29 chess lessons that are supposed to be taught in all Spring elementary schools. You wouldn't want to waste that cruise training.

But the answer to every to every question we tried to ask Spring administrators on camera is the same -- every time.

"Again, I'd like to ask for you to please contact our public relations," Buillon said. "I know you know our procedures."

We did. Didn't help.

When I asked how we scheduled an interview with an administrator, they just walked away.

"So, Allison, what do you think? Is it working?"

"The excitement is there."

Last November, Spring's School Board got a chess report card of sorts.

"Our campuses completed at least 20 lessons. We expect that the pacing will improve this year."

Yet our review of the most recent Spring school year shows most Spring teachers never complete the chess curriculum.

"If you have some documentation that allows me to pursue that, hand it over to me please and I will make sure that we pursue it," said School Board President Mel Smith.

You know where we got the records? From Spring.

At Reynolds Elementary School, less than half of the lessons were even taught.

"If it's not being implemented, then that's something the district needs to know about," Smith said.

Look at how much the First Move program has cost so far -- nearly $390,000. The lion's share of the investment are not the little chess sets for the kids. It's the cruise to Cozumel.

"I know for a fact that teachers have to supply their classrooms with school supplies out of their own income," said parent Faith Stankovic.

So are taxpayers getting rooked?

"They can come up here and learn it here in the school," Redfern said. "They don't have to take a cruise to learn how to play chess."

"That's the program they offer -- I don't know. The answer is I don't know," Smith said. "That's something you'd need to ask administration."

The chess cruise is just part of the out-of-state travel bill for Spring ISD this summer -- nearly $400,000. The travel is part of Spring's strategy to help the kids.

"We've had to look at alternative ways of keeping our children engaged in the education process," Smith said. "We're losing them."

And in the middle of our investigation, Dalane Buillion took her staff on a two day retreat during the school week to the Tremont Hotel.

"Oh, it must've been nice," parent Connie Szykowny said.

Buillion says the benefit of meeting away from Spring is "to remove oneself from the pace you keep in order to think and reflect on the direction in which you are going."

Of course you got to eat. We found $6,571 in food and hotel bills for two just days.

"I've still got to pay school taxes every year like everybody else around here," said Spring ISD grandparent Guillermo Barboza. "Why do they have to do that?"

The chess lady says a Caribbean cruise is actually cheaper than training teachers in Seattle or Chicago. She does not explain why the teachers can't be trained here, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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