BLOOMINGTON — Local school officials are defending the five-figure cost of attending an annual three-day school board conference in Chicago, but some admit expenses for the 2017 trip, including a $1,800 tab for one dinner and paying some guests' expenses, could have been reduced.

Bloomington District 87 spent more than $18,500 and McLean County Unit 5 spent more than $14,000 on the Nov. 17-19 Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) convention. 

“I understand why that number would raise some eyebrows,” said District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly. “But remember that this conference is the one, large professional development opportunity for school board members.” 

The conference includes state-mandated development sessions for school board members and school administrators. Costs vary depending on how many informational sessions officials attend.

According to receipts provided to The Pantagraph by District 87, seven board members, five administrators and several guests spent a total of $18,511 on meals, travel and lodging during the trip.

District 87 paid $16,200 for the same conference in 2016, which Reilly said is the average cost, depending on the number of attendees.

Four or five guests of the conference participants joined the 2017 group but did not attend the entire trip. The district covered $1,066 of the guests' expenses, which Reilly said is “allowed on occasion.”

IASB does provide some smaller training sessions and webinars across the state, but Reilly said those training options "don't provide the depth of knowledge needed for the wide variety of things school board members are responsible for."   

Event registration for the 2017 trip totaled $5,580 for District 87.

Nine-year District 87 board member and current board President Mary Yount has attended several conferences, including the one in November.

Yount said each official typically attends a multi-hour workshop, nearly 10 panel discussions and daily general sessions with speakers.

“My background is in nursing. When I started on the board, education was new to me. By going to the conferences I learned a lot about the financial side of education, security in schools, teacher contracts, taxes and law,” said Yount.

Reilly said district policy prohibits school board members from exceeding a total of $15,000 in annual travel expenses, and the cost for the six board members was $10,446 for the 2017 trip. He said for the rest of the school year, board members each likely will spend less than $100 in expenses.

At $8,354, the hotel stay surpassed registration costs, coming in at about $345 per person, per night at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. That price included the conference discount.

The conference sessions were at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Sheraton Grand Chicago and Swissotel hotels.

“Chicago is already an expensive place based on the cost of living and that’s no different for hotel accommodations,” said Reilly.

The district also covered the group's meals, totaling $2,478. Average meals cost $10 to $20 per official, but one dinner receipt topped $100 per person, with oysters, lobster and steak on the $1,800 receipt.

Reilly took the blame for the expensive restaurant choice. He said he booked the reservation in advance, but “it was difficult” to find a downtown restaurant to accommodate the group.

“I selected a location more expensive than I would’ve liked. In hindsight, I own that,” said Reilly. “I should’ve dug a little deeper to find a location that was more reasonable. I’ll do that in the future.”

As for the pricey meal, Yount said the board will “be more prudent” in the future and “give closer scrutiny to costs next year.”

Payment for travel expenses is taken from the district's education fund, which averages $50 million a year and covers most operating expenses such as teacher salaries. The education fund is mostly supported by its own property tax levy, but it also has some federal and state money.

Reilly said the district doesn’t always send every board member on the trip, but chose to in 2017 as a way to connect seasoned board members with new members.

McLean County Unit 5 sent six board members and seven administrators on the trip, spending $14,374.

The total cost of meal reimbursement for the trip was $120. The Unit 5 group stayed at a Hyatt hotel, which totaled $4,678 with the conference rate.

“It’s important to remember that these are volunteer positions; board members receive zero salary. For them to volunteer time to be trained is phenomenal,” said Daniel.

Around 10 officials from Stanford-based Olympia school district also attended the November conference, spending around $10,000, according to Olympia Superintendent Andrew Wise.

“I don’t think that’s a bad price for three days of professional development. Unfortunately, you’re downtown, so you have to pay downtown prices,” said Wise.

The hotel expense for the Olympia group made up most of their bill at about $6,600, paying a nightly average of $300 per person.

Wise said the district pays for hotel costs, travel mileage and event registration. Meals were paid by the individuals or by an event vendor.

“Could we save some money if they moved the event to Bloomington-Normal? Sure, but I applaud my board for going because it's an amazing conference,” said Wise.

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Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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