(Story originally published on WTSP.com on Aug. 15, 2016)
TAMPA, Florida – At a time when the district struggles with balancing its budget and finding a way to fund new school buses, Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes has continued to rack up significant travel expenses, more than the other six board members combined over the last year.
10Investigates found from May 2015 to May 2016, Valdes spent $14,116 traveling to conferences and events around the U.S. The rest of the Hillsborough County School Board spent just $13,299 combined in out-of-county travel during the same period. School board members are also issued additional reimbursements for local miles traveled within the county, plus tolls and parking incurred.
“We’re able to bring different perspectives (to Hillsborough County) from things that are working in other communities,” said Valdes of her travels, which included trips to conferences in Las Vegas, California, and Arizona in the last year. “Some of these boards that I’m on, I just don’t go (for the sake) of going to a conference; I have leadership positions in these particular boards.”
Among the eight regional and national boards Valdes serves on: Council of Urban School Boards of Education, National School Boards Association, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and the Florida School Boards Association.
She says Hillsborough’s collegiate academy, culinary arts, and dual-language programs are among the initiatives she’s helped bring to the county over her last decade in office. The entire board’s out-of-county travel spending accounted for just .001% of district’s $2.8 billion budget.
But critics point to the district’s ongoing budget concerns and general travel restrictions. Valdes’ spending remains largely unchanged in recent years.
"Travel for those who deal directly with children, teachers and supervisors, has been severely curtailed,” said Pat Hall, education chair of the Hillsborough League of Women Voters. “Why has school board travel not been affected?"
Valdes says she volunteers her own time to travel to education conferences. Hillsborough County School Board members make $42,570 a year, but are not considered full-time employees.
“It’s about how we can give our students ... those things that they need in order to be successful,” Valdes said.
Last school year, the entire Pinellas County school board spent just $8,369 on out-of-county travel.