It cost suburban taxpayers $574,197.48 to send 735 school board members and district administrators back to the classroom.
The price tag for a weekend-long conference last November includes rooms at downtown Chicago hotels and many free meals, but the heftiest portion of the tab comes from the nearly $300,000 spent on registration fees for seminars, workshops and classes, according to an analysis of 92 suburban school districts' conference spending.
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Some districts sent a crowd, the biggest by Naperville Unit District 203, which sent 19 people at a cost of $7,560 in conference fees alone. Some covered hundreds of dollars in costs for representatives who never made it to the conference, like Warren Township High School District 121.
School district leaders say the conference provides unique educational and professional development opportunities, but critics argue the information is available elsewhere cheaper or for free.
At $375 per person -- $400 a head for late registration -- conference fees alone can quickly add up. More than a third of the 92 suburban districts studied sent 10 or more people to the conference. Several school districts also covered "pre-conference" classes for school employees that generally add between $140 and $220.
"We got a lot out of it, and we constantly evaluate what we do," said District 203 school board President Mike Jaensch, one of 19 people from the school district who attended the conference at a total cost of $17,183.58. "It's a fair thing to look at what we spend and the value, but these conferences are valuable."
District 203 spent the most of any of the 92 suburban districts analyzed at this year's conference.
"We don't want to be sending people just to be sending people," said District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges. "Part of it was me being new in my position, and we also have several administrators new to their positions."
Rosemont Elementary School District 78 was one of three suburban districts among the 92 analyzed that didn't send anyone to the conference this year. Superintendent Kevin Anderson doesn't think his board will suffer because of it.
"I don't think we're in harm's way," he said. "(Organizers) do a good job of communicating what happens at the conference, and we get information that way, too."
Like District 78, Northbrook Elementary District 27 and Rondout Elementary District 72 based near Libertyville also did not send anyone to the conference. But Anderson still believes the conference sponsored jointly by the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials is "important," a sentiment echoed by nearly every school district official.
Some critics contend the conference is a significant expense at a time when districts are already stretching budgets.
"It's kind of a junket, and they use Chicago as a draw," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "There is value in this, but the question of whether it's worth the expense is something the taxpayers should decide."
While the 89 suburban districts that sent representatives to the conference spent $295,649.89 on registration and class fees, they spent almost the same amount on hotel rooms, food, travel and other incidental costs.
Next week, this column will examine how the districts spent tax dollars to house, feed and transport conference attendees.
Last week, this column highlighted spending on movies, limousine rides and valet parking by Fox Lake Elementary District 114, which helped raise the district's total costs to $13,756.20. Board President Jim Harms wrote this week that the board would "review our policy regarding board and administrator reimbursements and determine whether or not any changes are warranted." Harms said the district will continue to send its 12-member leadership team to the conference, however.
Many school districts like Barrington Unit District 220 and Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 chose to send fewer representatives and have them report back to the full board at follow-up board meetings. School district leaders can also download workshop handouts from the conference at the IASB's website.
Many board members point to required training state law mandates for fiduciary responsibilities and the Open Meetings Act as a reason to attend the conference. However, those classes can be taken online for $30 to $50 and only new board members have to take those classes, according to James Russell, the IASB's associate executive director for communications.
Morrison said it may be more "cost-effective" to have administrators and the board's attorney provide any legislative and legal updates affecting school boards than to send the entire panel of elected officers to a conference.
"It's fair to ask if we really have the resources to pay for this," he said.
The governing agencies are strict about cancellations as well. Prepaid registrants receive only partial reimbursement if a cancellation is necessary.
Warren Township High School District 121 taxpayers ate nearly $900 because several district officials scheduled had to cancel at the last minute because of family conflicts and emergencies, interim Superintendent Mary Perry Bates said.
"You have to book a year in advance," she said. "It wasn't a willy-nilly cavalier decision not to go. As you would expect, stuff happens."
Nearly 11,000 district administrators, employees and board members from around the state attended the conference this year, Russell said. The association reported 84 percent of the state's 863 public school districts attended the conference, which would have generated millions in registration fees alone. Russell called the conference a bargain compared to other similar government conferences. But it will be even more expensive next year.
"The price raises 4 percent a year automatically," Russell said. "Rather than set a price and let it ride for a few years, school districts can plan for it and expect it."
The money raised mainly goes back into putting on the conference again the following year, he said.
Russell said attendance at the conference fluctuates depending on the election cycle. Conferences after the spring elections are usually better attended. There is an election this April.
Gurnee Elementary District 56 taxpayers spent $5,250 on registration fees for 14 people to attend the conference. Superintendent John Hutton said it's the board's decision to send that size of a group.
He said the board looks through the scores of workshop offerings beforehand to make sure the courses they attend "align with what we're trying to do." However, he acknowledged the conference is completely voluntary and that administrators might not attend if the board didn't go themselves.
"We do want to support our board and their training," he said. "Would we go to this conference if the board didn't go? Probably, the answer is no."