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posted: 2/12/2013 2:50 PM

Editorial: School conference costs reflect need for restraint

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Life is full of choices, especially when it comes to spending money. They are the kinds of decisions most of us make every day on one level or another.

Should we buy a fancy car with all the bells and whistles or basic, reliable transportation? A family trip to Disney World versus a quiet and less expensive camping vacation? Steak or a burger?

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We weigh expenses and potential benefits against many factors, including cost and our ability to pay.

It's no different in business and shouldn't be any different in government.

And, that brings us to almost $600,000 spent by 89 school districts on a weekend conference in November in downtown Chicago and our concern that there weren't enough benefit-cost-ability-to-pay discussions. Or efforts to find less expensive options. Or restraint in spending taxpayer dollars.

Recent columns by Suburban Tax Watchdog columnist Jake Griffin showed districts sent 735 school board members and district administrators to the event. The cost included nearly $300,000 spent on registration fees for workshops, seminars and classes.

Attendees spent almost the same amount on hotel rooms, food, travel and other incidental costs. Money was also spent on movies, limousines, valet parking, the hotel fitness center and laundry service.

It smacks of overkill at a time when there's plenty of belt-tightening across the suburbs.

Many school officials defended their district's conference participation, saying it was valuable. That's not really the point. We're not questioning the need for training, but whether it could have been done more effectively and with more restraint, given the economics of our time.

Did Naperville Unit District 203 need to send 19 people at a cost to taxpayers of $17,183.58?

Did Fox Lake Elementary District 114 need to spend close to $1,600 on valet parking and $170 on a limousine ride from a hotel to a Brazilian steakhouse less than a mile away?

Could Batavia Unit District 101 officials have spent less than $1,929.75 on a dinner for 16 people at pricey Morton's Steakhouse? Items ordered included a $57 steak dinner and five $15 lobster bisques.

"It's fair to ask if we really have the resources to pay for this," the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform's David Morrison told Griffin.

Yes, it certainly is.

Some districts were conservative in the number of people they sent and the conference costs they assumed. They should be applauded.

We call on others to search for more cost-effective alternatives for the next conference: sending fewer representatives, using more affordable online training, and carpooling, to name a few.

In other words, treat conference expenses as if they're coming out of your pocket instead of ours.

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