Montville town councilors criticize school board expenses on trip to Boston

Montville - Town councilors on Monday criticized five members of the Board of Education for spending more than $7,000 of school district money last month on a three-day conference in Boston.

The National School Boards Association annual conference was held from April 21 to 23 at the Boston Convention and Exhibit Center. It cost the school district $7,164 for board members Sandra Berardy, Steven Loiler, Tom McNally, Robert Mitchell and Jim Wood to attend.

That covered a registration fee of $725 for each member and three nights each at the Hilton Boston Back Bay at $199 per night plus tax. Board members covered other costs associated with the trip, according to Superintendent of Schools Pamela Aubin.

Town councilors questioned the need for the district to pay for five of the board's nine members to attend the conference. They were also upset that each board member had a separate hotel room. Some said the trip was evidence of a larger spending problem.

"If they were generally concerned about saving money or trying to do something about keeping the cost down, they would consider bunking people together," Town Councilor Chuck Longton said. "The fact that they don't bother makes me think that they don't care. It pisses me off."

"I don't understand the benefit of the conference for all of the board members to attend," Town Councilor Rosetta Jones said. "That's the part that I'm still mystified by. I think the money could have been spent in a more beneficial way."

Aubin defended the board members who attended the conference and said its proximity was one reason they all attended. In the past, it was held in other states that would have required a flight to get there.

The conference is designed to instruct board members, administrators and educators on a variety of topics, including managing schools with tight budgets and the best practices in school governance, according to the conference's website.

McNally, a seven-year board member, said the board members from the town were in separate groups for a majority of the time. A news release said the conference featured more than 200 topics.

"Everybody went to different classes," McNally said. "I did Freedom of Information and legal issues. Contract negotiations. Stuff like that does pay off."

Mitchell described the conference as a rare opportunity because it was held close by. While he said he understood the councilors' concerns, he defended the trip.

"It's just so we're not isolated and thinking we're doing a good job when there could be something coming at us that we're not aware of," Mitchell said. "We're not experts in the field. You have to become an expert."

Wood said he was extremely disappointed that board members were being criticized. He also pointed out that the money was approved last year for the current budget.

"They're questioning volunteers on the board. We're volunteers," Wood said. "We don't get a stipend. We don't get paid. We're trying to better ourselves and the town and education for our kids."

Town Councilor Dana McFee said it would be difficult for him to assess the benefits of the conference because he is not a teacher. He also said he has faith in Aubin's oversight of school spending.

Longton had a different take on the issue.

"Nobody likes us looking under the hood," he said. "What they want us to do is rubber stamp their budget."

The Town Council has started its review of the proposed education budget for 2012-13. Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel Jr. proposed a $55.7 million town budget that called for no increase in the current $36.6 million school budget. The school district requested $37.6 million, a 2.72 percent increase, which the Board of Education unanimously approved in February.

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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