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Oxnard School Board OKs Added Funds for Travel

Education: Trustees approve a 39% increase, citing their need to attend conferences. Critics say the district has more pressing priorities.

July 08, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oxnard Union High School District board members, who have been at odds over travel spending in the past, have approved a 39% increase in their travel budgets.

On a 3-2 vote, with trustees Nancy Koch and Irene Pinkard dissenting, the board last month increased each member's yearly travel budget from $3,760 to $5,250. The money is used to attend professional development conferences.

The boost comes as many California school districts are struggling to make ends meet in the face of multimillion-dollar deficits. Although the Oxnard trustees passed a balanced $101-million budget for the coming year, they used $2.7 million in reserve funds.

"Our school district and many throughout the state are facing pretty hard economic times," said Koch, who has been a critic of the board's travel spending since she first raised the issue in a public meeting a year and a half ago. "My opinion is, when you're facing deficit spending, you look for places to cut and not places to increase."

But Oxnard Supt. Gary Davis disputed the characterization that the $2.7-million transfer constitutes "deficit spending." He said the money came from a $5.7-million savings fund that the district has built up over the years in anticipation of increased costs that would come with the opening last fall of Pacifica High School.

That reserve account is separate from the $3-million rainy-day fund that state officials urge districts to keep, Davis said. He added that the district did not make any major cuts in staff or programs this year and that the board gave teachers a 6.47% raise--the largest in Ventura County.

"Travel to educational workshops and conventions is an excellent way for board members to stay abreast of new programs," Davis said. "The difference is $7,450. That's very minimal out of a $101-million budget."

The increase brings the board's total travel budget to $26,250. In comparison, board travel budgets in the Conejo Valley and Ventura unified school districts--both of which serve more students than Oxnard Union--are less than $12,000 annually.

Koch said there are too many unmet needs in the district for board members to increase their expense accounts. For example, she said, the district's four older high schools need drinking fountains on sports fields to keep students hydrated during physical education classes, at a cost of $5,000 per fountain.

If the board capped travel spending at $2,000 per member, which is what Koch proposed, that would save more than $16,000--enough for three drinking fountains, she said.

In May 2001, Koch publicly criticized the board for what she called excessive travel spending on business trips that were not authorized by the panel, as its bylaws require. Her report triggered an investigation by the district attorney's office, which did not file any charges. After that, all board members turned in their district-owned credit cards and now get trips pre-approved by the board.

The increase was the second the board approved since it budgeted $2,560 per trustee last summer. When Pinkard asked for an additional $1,200 to attend a national conference earlier this year, the board approved the increase for everyone on the board.

Davis said he stands by his support of the budget increase.

"These are five people who have to make very serious decisions," he said. "I don't think it's excessive."

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