Spotlight

Deal With Public Perceptions Before and After You Travel

Even in the best economic times, school administrators can face public criticism for using tax dollars to finance out-of-district travel.

Paul Houston, executive director of AASA, concedes there’s always the potential of public criticism over the cost-benefit ratio of an overseas study trip.

“We’re finding trouble with people even traveling domestically to go to meetings in this sort of climate,” says Houston, who earlier served as superintendent in Princeton, N.J., Riverside, Calif., and Tucson, Ariz. “My counterargument is that these are the very times when that sort of investment makes the most sense because there’s a tendency when things get tight to hunker down and close yourself in.

“You also close off yourself from looking at broader options to problems you’re facing. It’s like the advice you get from investment people. When the market’s down, it’s a good time to invest. In many ways, when money is tight, it’s time to invest in staff development activities, whether domestic issues or international travel.”

Joseph Cirasuolo, who served as AASA president in 1999-2000, echoes Houston’s observations, noting that most of his overseas trips came at a time when the country’s economic climate was more robust. Public perceptions in fiscally challenged times differ. “I would suspect that even with somebody else paying for it, a superintendent going out of the country could be a problem,” he says.

Positive Press

Many administrators head off criticism through accountability and communication.

 

While he travels, James Egan, superintendent of the Southwestern Wisconsin School District in Hazel Green, Wis., keeps in touch with his staff through e-mail. As soon as he knows he’s going out of town, he contacts local newspaper reporters to let them know of his plans, often resulting in a balanced news story. Upon his return, he makes presentations in classrooms.

Joe McGeehan, superintendent of the Highline School District 401 in Burien, Wash., says although his travel to Germany was funded by Fulbright, he stresses the importance of such trips to local taxpayers.

McGeehan says a school leader must commit to creating something tangible that benefits the schools and students as a result of a foreign study trip. He secured private funding toward the creation of a high school aerospace and aviation program, an effort inspired by what he observed of vocational training in Germany.

Additionally, McGeehan has spoken about his trip to the local Chamber of Commerce, workforce development meetings and parent-teacher associations and written about what he learned in articles for district publications.

Public Criticism

Frank Barham, a former superintendent who now directs the Virginia School Boards Association, contends the financial issue is a moot point.

 

“We’ve got to learn about other educational systems, because the issue of public money as far as I’m concerned is irrelevant,” says Barham. “People may say if it comes from public money, then it’s wrong. The truth of the matter is it’s either right or wrong irrespective of the funding source. You have to analyze it on its merit.”

On the other hand, one cannot be spending inordinate sums of money to hopscotch around the world, Houston says.

“I tend to travel internationally once or twice a year and I’ve cut back to about once a year because things are so tight, I don’t think I can justify multiple trips,” he says.

Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Adminstrators, predicts superintendents will be reluctant to travel overseas because of their tight budgets. Turner himself is considering cutting overseas travel out of his budget for this year.

“They’re very worthwhile trips, but in this economic environment, they’re probably not going to be taken advantage of as fully as in the past years,” he says.

Houston argues he would be less effective in his role if he did no traveling and that it’s the job of a leader to view the world differently from other people.

“If they could see exactly the thing you’re seeing, they don’t need you,” he says.