Updated 3:17 p.m. Tuesday
Shakopee school administrators traveled extensively in recent years, even as the district's budget shortfall quietly grew, according to travel records obtained by the Valley News.
Superintendent Rod Thompson traveled out-of-state 18 times between April 2015 and March 2017, with 16 of those trips at least partially funded by the school district.
Nine of Thompson's 16 district-funded trips were to Alexandria, Virginia, to attend classes for the Howard University Urban Superintendents Academy. He then traveled to New Orleans March 2-4 for the graduation ceremony.
Thompson received a fellowship that covered his $6,000 participation fee and lodging for the academy, and the district funded his airfare and food on each of his three-day trips to Virginia.
According to its website, the academy is designed to prepare educational leaders for a position as an urban superintendent, deal effectively with community relations and politics in an urban setting and become a strategic leader who uses critical reasoning and creativity in problem solving.
“The cohort of around 30 people came from small districts, suburban and urban districts," Thompson explained. "Even though it’s called urban, we have urban-light issues here in Shakopee… such as cultural diversity, student engagement (and) dealing with some of the socio-economic equity pieces.”
Thompson’s trips to Virginia for Urban Superintendents Academy classes were as follows, according to purchase card receipts and travel data provided by the district in response to a records request:
- August 28-29, 2015
- Sept. 18-20, 2015
- Oct. 16-18, 2015
- Dec. 18-20, 2015
- Jan. 15-17, 2016
- Feb. 19-21, 2016
- March 18-20, 2016
- April 15-17, 2016
- May 20-22, 2016
Thompson said the program helped him explore solutions to challenges the district faces during the high school's transition to the Academies of Shakopee. However, he said he would have reconsidered participating in the program had he known about the district's budget shortfall.
“If we were in a budget crunch time, I would have chosen to not attend the AASA at this time and applied at a different time," Thompson said. "(The trips to) Nashville were critical, but I would have delayed mine.”
A personal transaction overlooked
While inspecting purchase card receipts and travel information provided by the district, Valley News staff discovered a receipt for a Sept. 10-12, 2016, flight booked in April 2016 using Thompson's district card. The receipt indicated the tickets were for Thompson and his wife, Lori, at a cost of $724 per passenger.
When questioned by the Valley News about the nature of the trip booked for Thompson and his wife, district spokeswoman Ashley McCray said the personal transaction was unintentional and "overlooked." Thompson wrote two checks Monday to the district to reimburse one of the $724 tickets and a $158 service charge.
Thompson was initially unsure whether he or the district paid for the second ticket, but after contacting Delta Air Lines, he said part of the ticket had been purchased using credits refunded to the district from a canceled business trip. On Tuesday, he wrote another check to make up the difference. In total, he reimbursed the district $1,448.40 for the two tickets.
Executive Assistant Sarah Koehn said the trip was initially booked as a business trip to Nashville, and Thompson's wife was going to come along for their anniversary. She said Thompson was going to meet with Starr Herrman, an educational consultant who works with the Ford Next Generation Learning Network, to discuss the implementation of the Academies of Shakopee.
"He was going to meet with Starr Herrman and take Lori for their anniversary and take her to the Vikings game (against the Titans in Tennessee), so he was going to do both," Koehn said. "But as it got closer to September, he realized he can’t ask Starr to meet with him on a Saturday and a Sunday, and he didn’t want to leave Lori."
When Thompson's plan changed, he forgot to reimburse the district for the cost of the ticket, Koehn said.
Personal transactions are deemed "unacceptable" purchases in the district's purchase card manual provided to and signed by all those who hold district cards.
Researching the Academies of Shakopee
Along with traveling out of state to complete the Urban Superintendents program, Thompson traveled seven additional times between April 2015 and March 2017 for conferences and study tours related to the implementation of the Academies of Shakopee.
The high school will transform into the Academies of Shakopee once the new addition opens in fall 2018. The Academies of Shakopee is designed to be small learning communities of students and teachers organized around areas of interest.
There will be seven academies: Arts and Communication, Business and Entrepreneurship, Engineering and Manufacturing, Health Science, Human Services, Science and Technology and the Freshman Academy.
In April 2015, one month before the referendum for the high school addition, Thompson went with School Board Chairman Scott Swanson and Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Nancy Thul to Nashville for a pre-study tour of the Academies of Nashville.
That trip was the first of eight total study tours taken by district administrators to various locations around the country, according to district credit card receipts and travel data:
- In September 2015, 26 people, including Thompson, district administrators, school board members, teachers and business partners, went on a study tour of the Academies of Nashville.
- In October 2015, 10 administrators took a study tour of the College and Career Academies of Rockford, Illinois.
- In November 2015, 35 people, including Thompson, administrators, teachers, board members and parents, visited Nashville for another study tour.
- In December 2015, Thompson, Thul and Pat Overom of ICS Consulting Inc. visited Texas for a study tour of Carl Wunsche High School.
- In February 2016, Thul and Nika Summer, the district’s elementary teaching and learning supervisor, went to Florida for a study tour of the Academies of Pinellas County.
- In March 2016, 30 district administrators, members of the Excellence in Equity team and teachers went on a tour of the Academies of Nashville.
- In September 2016, a group of five administrators and principals visited the Academies of Nashville because Executive Principal Jeff Pawlicki, Assistant Principals Sarah Jordan and Scott Doran hadn’t had a chance to see the academies in action since being hired as the principal team for the Academies of Shakopee.
Thompson said one requirement of being part of the Ford Next Generation Learning Network associated with the academies curriculum model is that the district needs widespread community support. So schools that are serious about joining the network are encouraged to showcase that support by sending community members to tour the Academies of Nashville.
“We had businessmen and women that needed to see it firsthand (to get) real world experience of how the Academies of Nashville transformed the learning experience for students," Thompson said. "We have to ensure it’s implemented successfully. This is very complex, so we’re trying to make sure it’s thoughtful and properly planned.”
Swanson said he believes the trips were worth the investment because the in-person experience was invaluable. The out-of-state travel related to researching the Academies of Shakopee totaled about $191,000. That includes the $1,299-per-person study tour tuition in Nashville, food, lodging, travel expenses and additional reimbursement requests.
According to Koehn, the district does not impose a daily spending limit for meals charged to district cards while traveling. Buying alcohol is an unacceptable use of district purchase cards, according to the purchase card procedures manual, so Thompson personally reimbursed the district for alcoholic beverages purchased by trip attendees.
The trips were funded primarily with staff development funds, which are approved by the School Board as part of the annual budget. The state of Minnesota requires school districts reserve at least 2 percent of their budget for professional development.
Those who went on the study tours were able to tour the schools and speak to students about how the academy model has influenced their learning experiences.
"Could somebody video it and take it back? That wouldn’t be possible," Swanson said in response to whether the tour could be digitally documented to reduce the number of people traveling. "You need to be there and experience what we experienced."
Traveling for professional development
Since April 2015, district administrators' out-of-state travel not related to the implementation of the academies includes:
- A trip taken by seven administrators to Boston for the Closing the Achievement Gap conference at Harvard. Administrators who attended were Thompson, Executive Director of Administrative Services Scott Hare, Director of Special Services Julie Menden, Excellence with Equity Supervisor Ray Betton, and Excellence with Equity team members Bethany Pearson, Juan Mitchell and Sonia Hellerud.
- A trip taken by Assistant Superintendent John Bezek to Missouri for the Center for Advanced Professional Studies 2015 Summer Huddle.
- A trip taken by Hare, Menden and Bezek to Washington, D.C., for the District Management Council National Conference.
- A trip taken by Thompson and Thul to Palm Springs, California, for the Ford NGL Power of the Network National Conference.
- A trip taken by Bezek, Thul and Pawlicki to Tampa, Florida, for the National Career Academy Coalition National Conference.
- A trip taken by Thompson to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the Ford NGL Superintendents' Council Meeting, which was reimbursed by Ford.
- A trip taken by Thompson to Los Angeles, California, to interview for membership in Broad Academy, which was paid for by Broad Academy. According to its website, Broad Academy convenes for five week-long sessions to develop innovative strategies to handle urban public education’s greatest needs. Thompson was not accepted to the program.
The most expensive of those trips was to Boston in July 2015 for the Closing the Achievement Gap conference, which came at a cost of roughly $36,000 to the district, based on purchase card receipts.
Seven administrators went on this six-day trip and stayed at a Sheraton hotel; the hotel cost ranged from $1,587 to $1,928 per administrator for the duration of the trip. The cost to attend the conference was $2,450 per person.
Thompson said administrators have traveled more in the last two years than they normally might because they've been so invested in researching best practices and ways to implement the Academies of Shakopee. He hopes Shakopee sees a return on investment once the academies open, because Shakopee will host study tours for administrators from across the country to attend.
“If one looks at the snapshot in time of when we’re intense on research, you’d get a snapshot that's a lot different than the years moving ahead," Thompson said. "Once we have our house in order, we will stay here and have experts coming to us. You won’t see these continuous types of trips like that because we’re not having to be intensified in such a short period of time.”