Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela travel bills criticized

Centinela travel bills criticized

A Centinela Valley school board member is raising strong objections to several out-of-state trips her four colleagues and the superintendent are making this year, saying it sends the wrong message during times of economic hardship.

Board member Sandra Suarez says now isn’t the time for the trustees of the small, academically struggling district composed of Lawndale, Hawthorne and Leuzinger high schools to be making trips to Washington, D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco and Texas.

“I think money for these conferences could be used for students,” Suarez said. “They don’t have buses to go to their events. They don’t have band equipment. … Centinela is not using their money properly.”

The four trips, scheduled between this weekend and mid-April, will cost the district a total of about $32,250, she said. Suarez, who in recent months has become something of a lone-wolf dissenter on the board, is also critical of a fifth trip in early March that will send three district employees to Las Vegas for a pizza expo, where, district officials say, they will learn how to make pizza in a more cost-effective and healthful manner. That one will cost the district $3,500.

“Why do three people have to go to the pizza expo and not just one?” she asked. “Then that one person can show the others what to do.”

Officials with the district counter that the trips are worth every penny. They say each conference offers an opportunity for professional development for school leaders. What’s more, they say, the annual foray to D.C., which this year runs from today through Tuesday, last year paid for itself 10 times over in the form of earmarks to the district from the office of South Bay Rep. Maxine Waters.

Superintendent Jose Fernandez said the Centinela Valley cadre took home $95,000 for a school program after lobbying the Democratic congresswoman’s office in person.

“Locally elected board members have to plead their case,” he said. “That’s the reason you go there. If you’ve ever been to Congress you know there are lots of people knocking on doors. That’s the way the system is designed.”

The debate comes at a time when school districts across the state are bracing for what could be even deeper cuts, given California’s historic $25 billion gap. In recent years, Centinela Valley has dodged the large-scale downsizing that has bedeviled districts in Torrance, Redondo Beach, Palos Verdes Peninsula and elsewhere. But this year the Centinela district, too, is facing the specter of mass layoffs.

Most school districts in the area have severely curtailed school board travel. Torrance, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Wiseburn have all cut back — if not completely eliminated — all forms of travel for two years running.

“If they’ve gone somewhere, it’s always on their own dime,” said Carolyn Seaton, director of education services for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. “They refuse to let the district pay for that, even though it’s perfectly within their right.”

Seaton said the district hasn’t had a travel request in two years.

Wiseburn school board member Dennis Curtis, long an open critic of Centinela Valley, did not mince words in voicing his disapproval of the board’s travel itinerary.

“I’m a taxpayer in the Centinela Valley district and I’m appalled at that,” he said. “What really saddens me is the public doesn’t take a more active interest in Centinela Valley and see some of the more ridiculous things they are doing.”

But not everyone is critical of the journeys. At the Centinela Valley district’s last public meeting in late January, Eric Hall, a district-hired financial consultant, lauded the group’s trip to D.C. as a creative way to search for funds during difficult times.

“Investing in yourself, being self-sustaining, doing what you can to control your destiny,” he said. “I think you’re on a good path and I would just encourage you to continue to work on those things.”

Hall also warned Centinela school board members that they would likely not escape what could be a stormy season for California pubic schools.

“The days of trying to do more with less are over,” he said. “Many districts are now just deciding we have to do less.”

D.C. attendance low

This weekend’s conference in Washington, D.C., is sponsored by the National School Boards Association. The primary purpose of the 38th annual event – called the Federal Relations Network Conference – is to teach locally elected school board members how to lobby, said NSBA spokeswoman Linda Embrey.

“This is the only conference where local school board members come and lobby on The Hill,” she said.

Embrey said attendance is down this year due to the sluggish economy. All told, about 800 school board members were expected to attend, she said. That’s less than 1 percent of all school board members across the nation, she added.

The turnout from California was even thinner: Just 24 school board members were registered to come, Embrey said. That means the Centinela contingent constitutes one-sixth of the entire state pool.

In a sense, this could work to Centinela’s benefit. Fewer board members means less competition for earmarks. Then again, Rep. Waters said she would also be happy to meet with them in her Los Angeles office.

“I always make it a point to let my constituents know that when they are in D.C., they should always feel free to come by and visit with me and my staff,” she said in an e-mail to the Daily Breeze.

“I especially enjoy visiting with Centinela Valley officials, because of how many students they serve in Hawthorne and Lawndale. But I also return to Los Angeles weekly, and would be happy to make time to meet with them back home should budget concerns or other factors keep them from coming to Washington.”

Fernandez said the group plans to meet with other movers and shakers in Washington in addition to Waters, among them U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

The Maxine Waters earmark

Last year’s $95,000 earmark from Waters came from the Department of Labor. But it didn’t go directly to the Centinela schools. Instead, the money came to the South Bay Workforce Investment Board, which serves nine cities, including Lawndale and Hawthorne.

Specifically, the grant is for career exploration. The idea is to help young people find and keep a job, and to help motivate students to stay in school, said Jan Vogel, executive director of the South Bay Workforce Investment Board. He added that all of the money has been set aside for Centinela Valley students.

Centinela officials say their trip was also responsible for a $500,000 grant to the South Bay Workforce Investment Board. That grant helps students from several school districts land internships, among other things.

But Vogel said the grant was the fruit of a grant writer’s efforts. Asked if he thought the Centinela group lobbied specifically for that grant, he said, “I don’t know. I assume they did.”

At least one of this year’s trips will be partially subsidized. Superintendent Fernandez said that the board this year secured a small grant, worth about $3,400, to pay the airfare and two of three hotel nights in Austin, Texas. That trip is for the annual education leadership institute of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in early March.

At the district’s last regular school board meeting on Jan. 25, Suarez was the lone board member to vote against the four trips. She will not attend any of them.

Suarez’s disagreement with her colleagues isn’t limited to travel. At the Jan. 25 meeting, she was the lone “no vote” on three items besides the trips, and abstained from voting on eight others. The other four board members – Hugo Rojas, Rocio Pizano, Gloria Ramos and Maritza Molina – gave assenting votes on all items, as they tend to do.

Until recently, Suarez typically voted in lockstep with them, but there has been a falling out. The catalyst was a November construction bond measure that Suarez opposed, on the grounds that it would result in knocking down historic school buildings. (Suarez is an ardent history buff.) The $98 million bond measure was approved by voters, but ever since Suarez has become distrustful of the district.

Suarez — who also serves as Leuzinger High School’s band booster president — says she finds the travel issue all the more troubling because the high school band has forfeited going on trips due to money shortages. She said money is so tight that the band director sometimes cannot afford all the sheet music, and must write it out himself longhand.

As for Rojas, the school board president, he said the trips have helped him become a better steward of the public trust. He said he has learned about a host of school issues, such as safety, nutrition, technology and open meetings laws. Board members who haven’t gone, he added pointedly, have demonstrated an ignorance of “proper protocol.”

He added that the conferences have broadened his network of contacts in high places, which he said can be a boon to the schools.

“I recently met with (Los Angeles County) Sheriff Lee Baca,” he said. “Most school board members can’t just walk into his office.”

Last school year, the board also went on four trips that required airfare. They were to Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix. Suarez did not attend any of those trips, but she did go to Washington two years ago.

Expensive hotels

This past summer, the Daily Breeze obtained receipts for travel, hotel and food expenses.

The records, which appear to be incomplete, show board members billed the district for more than $12,000 on the trips. (Receipts for expenditures – except for coach airline travel – were not provided for the Chicago trip. Also, travel, accommodation and food receipts were not included for Molina’s trip to Phoenix.)

During the March 2010 trip to Washington, the Centinela contingent — Rojas, Molina, Fernandez and another district official, Hatha Parrish — stayed for three nights at the Four Seasons, a luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, according to district records.

In December 2009, then-newly elected board members Rojas and Molina traveled with Rocia Pizano and Fernandez to the annual California School Boards Association Conference in San Diego, where they stayed at the Manchester Grand Hyatt and Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina hotels.

On each trip, they spent money and billed the district for expenses ranging from valet parking and multiple room-service meals to newspaper subscriptions, bottled water and extra-bag airline fees.

The group, however, appeared to follow the rules on booze. They did not bill the district for alcoholic drinks that showed up on some of the receipts.

Fernandez said the board typically stays in the hotels that are recommended by the associations holding the events. He added that board members must take time off of work to go to the events. In the end, he said, the students benefit.

“I think our job is to prepare them for the world of work or college,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to do. But it isn’t free.”,