Principal cites teacher shortage as reason for spending thousands on professional trips
Tulsa’s Nathan Hale High school faces challenges that are common statewide in Oklahoma.
A teacher shortage, failing grades in core subjects, a majority of its students are on free or reduced lunches.
Those challenges are why some people are shaking their heads over something Project Oklahoma discovered -- an expensive trip paid for by school funds.
“I’ve never, in all my years I’ve worked for TPS, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Elizabeth Vaughan.
Vaughan is a newly-retired school nurse. She worked at Nathan Hale High School during the last school year.
“This was a surprise exception, and I don’t think it was quite the right time at all,” said Vaughan.
The timing she’s talking about is April 10-14, the tail end of the teacher walkout.
The location was the Las Vegas Strip. That’s where 12 Nathan Hale High School employees spent four days at a work conference, including Principal Dr. Sheila Riley.
“At the same time, we didn’t want to lose that money, because we wanted to do what was best for our kids and adults in the building, so the decision was made to go,” said Riley.
Riley said it wasn’t an easy decision to go to Vegas but adds that the school would have lost the money if it didn’t spend it.
The reason? She was using "Title I" funds, or federal tax dollars.
According to records Project Oklahoma uncovered, the trip cost $22,000.
“I don’t really know if we could have picked another conference and how that would have worked since that conference was named in [our budget],” said Riley.
That’s not the only trip Riley took this past school year. In June, Riley and three other administrators who went on the Vegas trip, went to another conference in Napa, California. It cost $15,000.
Of the 12 people who took the trips, half were actual teachers in the classrooms. Others included Principal Riley, three assistant principals, a librarian, and a parent/teacher liaison.
“I think the decision on who we selected first to go was a solid one, because we wanted the influential department heads,” said Riley.
In total, around $37,000 of "Title I" funds were spent on professional development trips last school year. "Title I" funds can be used for professional development trips, so Riley was well within her right to budget it. However, she says the money was originally set aside to pay for a teacher’s salary and a paraprofessional. She said she couldn’t find qualified candidates to fill the positions in time.
“I believe this is the first year I’ve had to move money that was allocated for something else into a different bucket. It just keeps getting worse, because we’re having the same problems this year,” said Riley.
“It’s totally unacceptable. I could not understand how it could have ever been OK-ed by the service center for this to happen, because it was a lot of money,” said Vaughan.
Vaughan wonders if there might have been a better way to spend school money, especially when it’s so hard to come by.
Riley said she’s planning on sending four teachers to the conference in Las Vegas this school year.