June 13, 2014 at 11:02 pm

EAA keeps spending thousands per month on travel, new records show

Education Achievement Authority Chancellor Dr. John Covington at Nolan Elementary/Middle School in Detroit. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

The cash-strapped Education Achievement Authority continues to spend tens of thousands of dollars per month on travel, using money that could be spent on computers or hiring teachers, newly released documents show.

In March and April, the EAA spent $52,000 sending school administrators and teachers to conferences in a number of cities, including San Francisco; Atlanta; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore. That’s atop $178,000 charged on credit cards for travel since the authority was formed in 2012 to take over Detroit’s 15 lowest performing schools.

The latest figures follow a Detroit News investigation into EAA spending in May and were obtained using the Freedom of Information Act to secure credit card bills issued to Chancellor John Covington and high school principals. Combined with $56,000 in checks written to hotels and airlines since 2012, the new charges push the travel tally to at least $286,000 in two years.

That outrages critics, including state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, who noted that teachers have complained about having to pay for basic supplies such as pencils and working in classrooms with faulty heating systems.

“Where are they possibly going?” she asked. “What types of seminars are so incredibly important they need to be traveling to all these extravagant locations when kids are stuffing their arms in sweaters to keep warm because the heaters don’t work?”

The EAA provided records showing $40,000 of the travel in the past two months was funded by federal grants for districts with many disadvantaged students. Of that, $16,000 was covered by federal School Improvement Grants that “require extensive professional development,” said Terry Abbott, an EAA spokesman, who noted that state officials blessed the plan.

The conferences are an “investment” to help students “make rapid progress after years of being stuck in failing schools,” said Abbott. He said the district also spent another $4 million on professional development that does not require travel.

New EAA communications director Mario Morrow said turning around historically low-performing districts is “not an easy task” and the district “will do whatever it takes” to train teachers.

“Our teachers have been very supportive of new, innovative ways of instructing,” said Morrow, a former assistant superintendent for Detroit Public Schools. “We are not inventing conferences. We are not Googling conferences just to go to them.”

The records show that staffers attended the South by Southwest conference in Austin; the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators in Washington; the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in New Orleans; and the Northwest Positive Behavior Inventions and Supports Conference in Portland.

Professional development is a requirement of the School Improvement Grants program, but the state of Michigan prefers it be conducted in-state to minimize travel costs, said Michael Radke, director of the Office of Field Services for the Department of Education.

The EAA used federal Title I grants to pay for $17,000 of the travel in March and April. That money can be used for professional development, but it also can fund programs that directly help students, such as supplies or tutoring programs, said Jonathan Kinloch, a Detroit Board of Education member who also is on the board of the Michigan Association of School Boards.

“These grants allow for professional development, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend it recklessly on travel that is questionable based on the luxurious locations of these conferences,” Kinloch said. “If they need training so bad, why don’t they go to Tuscaloosa or Iowa, instead of New Orleans?”

Lipton and other Democrats called for an investigation into EAA spending after The News published its investigation May 12. The News found the EAA used Covington’s credit cards to charge $10,000 in gas for his chauffeured car, $25,000 for furniture from IKEA for a computer lab and for attendance at 57 conferences in 36 cities from April 2012 to February.

Nothing has come of the calls for an investigation.

The new credit card bills also show the EAA spent another $4,776 in February on furniture from IKEA. Abbott said the charge was for more furniture at a computer lab at the Marion Law Academy and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reimbursed the expense.

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