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Panel eyes travel costs; Members call for details.

Byline: Jacqueline Reis

WORCESTER - A recent Telegram & Gazette article about school and city travel expenses led the School Committee to ask for more information about travel costs this year, but Chairman and Mayor Joseph C. O'Brien also noted that decisions about travel are really up to the administration.

"We've got a good process, and there's significant checks and balances," Mr. O'Brien said.

The discussion came from a motion by school board member Dianna L. Biancheria asking for more information, and board member Tracy O'Connell Novick agreed that the committee and public should know more.

"We want to have a handle on what we're doing and where we're going," Ms. Biancheria said.

Ms. Novick said to committee members and staff, "We forget at our peril ... that we spend public funds."

The Dec. 26 article noted that the School Department had spent $12,665 on Boston hotel rooms for 61 staff members at a conference there, and $4,545 to fly two administrators to San Diego for a minority teacher recruitment conference. It did not note that the department has not spent city dollars on out-of-state travel since 2003, Superintendent Melinda J. Boone said.

In the article, Chief Financial and Operations Officer Brian E. Allen said that most of the staff members who went to the Boston conference did so without pay during their summer vacation. It would have cost more than $43,600 to pay them, he said.

Mr. O'Brien was quoted in the article as saying that the Boston hotel costs were "not acceptable."

Brian A. O'Connell, who was elected vice chairman of the committee last night, argued both sides of the debate, saying School Committee members need to have "a convincing argument" for why staff travel to any given event but also noted that the conferences to which School Department staff traveled seemed "within general bounds of what I see for conferences." Mr. O'Connell is both the longest serving member of the committee and director of finance for the Westerly, R.I., public schools.

Committee members Jack L. Foley and Mary J. Mullaney both said making such decisions was part of the administration's role, not the committee's, and Mrs. Mullaney said the media shouldn't drive committee action.

"We're professionals. We have integrity. We don't jump into the fray and wrestle in this muddy forum just because a reporter wants to set it up this way," she said.

To a certain extent, the discussion appeared to reflect the level of trust committee members have in the administration, something not lost on Ms. Boone. "I think that's the bottom line," she said.

The committee will hear more detail about travel costs at its Jan. 20 meeting.

In other business, the committee accepted an $8,471 donation from the Lake View School's Parent-Teacher Organization to buy books.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 7, 2011
Words:465
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