in Houston, Texas

HISD travel records show wasted taxpayer dollars, poor planning, toothless travel rules

Gazing out the airplane window, not a care in the world for Houston taxpayers.
Friday, Jun 11, 2010, 08:05PM CST
By Steve Miller and Lynn Walsh

The educators conference was announced about a year in advance. It was in Columbus, Ohio, in October 2008. Plenty of lead time to make travel arrangements, nailing down cheap flights.

Instead, teachers and administrators from the Houston Independent School District waited until the last minute to buy plane tickets to Ohio, choosing fares that ballooned to nearly $1,000 per ticket the week before the conference.

The poor planning and HISD's lenient travel policy cost taxpayers $16,736 for the 22 staff members' flights, or an average of $760.72 per person. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars could have been saved for travel to the Battelle for Kids National Value-Added conference.

Less costly flights were suggested for the attendees by one of the district’s two in-house travel representatives, including some on Southwest Airlines that cost $475.50 round-trip. The district could have saved $6,000 if all staff members had opted for a flight in that price range.

Pamela Cunningham, education program manager for the district’s east region office, made a case for the higher fares on Continental Airlines in an e-mail to a secretary: “This was the best flight for all of us given times and plane size.”

The expense involved in getting to the Ohio conference is an example of how HISD has racked up large travel bills, a Texas Watchdog review of three years of flight records shows.

Poor planning, a preference for costlier direct flights, disregard of the district’s policy that favors driving to destinations within 200 miles, and the use of a travel agency that tacks $30 onto each plane ticket have cost the district dearly --- even as it wrestles with a massive budget deficit and eliminates teaching jobs.

A Texas Watchdog review of flight vouchers and travel plans for HISD staffers from January 2007 to February 2010 this year has found other questionable practices in place.

These include:

  • Short-notice purchase of tickets for events that have been announced months before, driving up the price of tickets.
  • The use of a travel agency, Advantage Travel, that adds $30 to every ticket issued by the district. At the same time, the district has two employees, paid $50,750 each, devoted full-time to making travel arrangements for the district.
  • A preference for nonstop flights. While a convenience, this almost always results in a pricier ticket.
  • Foregoing cheaper flights for pricier ones that are more convenient or allow teachers and administrators to fly together.
  • Allowing taxpayers to cover the cost of checked luggage. One e-mail reminded travelers to save their check tickets for reimbursement.

The findings come as HISD continues to pare away at a budget it has sought to balance for months. In February, district Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett projected a budget shortfall of $57 million. A district reorganization plan was put into place soon after her announcement, eliminating more than 200 positions at an estimated savings of $8 million and ultimately helping the district balance the proposed $1.5 billion budget.

E-mails obtained by Texas Watchdog show a district that caters to the travel whims of its teachers and administrators. The district's travel policy is simply a rough guideline for travel, not a dictate.

Explained in the district’s travel policy:

Employees are encouraged to plan business travel at least 21 days in advance, whenever possible, to take advantage of reduced airfares.  The amount paid for airline fares cannot exceed the rate the District would pay for fourteen (14)-day advance fare unless the travel is for essential business travel as defined under the travel policy (section 914). ... Personnel traveling on official District business shall select the most rapid and economical transportation available. Economic and convenient travel will depend on the distance and services available in a particular locale. Generally, air travel is preferred for distances of 200 miles or more, while trips of less distance should be made by other transportation means.

Flights to Austin, 161 miles away, are common, taken 188 times since 2007. Staffers flew to San Antonio 84 times in the same period.

Some plane trips defy logic in terms of time commitment, often taking as long as a drive would.

One staffer was flown to Austin for three days from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, leaving at 4 p.m. from Hobby Airport to Austin-Bergstrom International, a 45-minute flight. The return on Oct. 2 departed at 6:55 p.m. and arrived back at Hobby at 7:45 p.m.

The flight, booked one day in advance on Southwest Airlines, cost $281.50 plus a $30 fee to Advantage Travel. The travel records do not include transportation from Bergstrom or other local travel costs.

Had the traveler driven, the mileage reimbursement would have cost $177.10, and the time commitment about the same as the flight required, since Austin is a three-hour drive from much of Houston.

In January, the school district flew eight staffers to Austin for the day, 161 miles away, at a cost of $97.70 a person, plus a $30 booking fee per ticket. Total cost of the tickets came to $1,021.60.

Carpooling, even with two to a car, would have come to $708.40.

Travel records reviewed showed numerous flights to San Antonio, 196 miles away, and Austin. HISD travelers also frequented Corpus Christi, which at 216 miles away is just over the district's suggested cutoff point for flights.

These flights arrive in airports that require a cab or car rental to get to places of business. Costs billed to the district were typically double what they would have been if employees had carpooled and sought mileage reimbursement. Savings of even $200 per trip would add up to tens of thousands of dollars for the district.

Superintendent of School Support Services Martha Salazar Zamora on Monday, Feb. 8, learned she had to be in Corpus Christi in three days for an event. Rather than drive the 220 miles, the district purchased a $305.90 flight and rented a car for the 24 hours she was in town.

Her return flight ensured she was home by 6:12 the following evening. The 5 p.m. departure from Corpus meant that she likely had to be back at the airport to return the car at around 3:30 p.m. Had she driven her own car, she could have driven back and arrived in Houston by the same time, less the car rental cost.

Zamora declined to comment.

The district says it has no cars for employee use among its fleet of vans, school buses and sedans. And it has never formally pondered the savings that might be achieved by doing so.

“We do not have district cars for employees to take,” said Garrett, chief financial officer. “That is a whole other administrative upkeep, between mileage reimbursements, repairs. ... We just have not ever done that and have not done a study on what the cost would be if we did have cars.”

Employees “have their own schedules” when they attend conferences and events, she said. “People have different needs when traveling to a conference. Some stay the whole week. Some just stay a day.”

District pays travel agency $30 per ticket

In a period between Jan. 15 and Feb. 16 this year, the district spent $45,048.95 on airfares for district employees. Of that amount, $1,970, or around 4 percent, was spent solely on agent fees to Advantage Travel, despite the use of district employees Claudette Vernon and Lynne Lyman as travel services reps.

Records show both are paid $50,572 annually by HISD.

Vernon is part of the Procard and Travel team, according to the HISD directory which also lists another travel specialist, Tara Haire.

District "procards," or procurement cards, are the credit cards provided to 1,200 of its employees. HISD policy prohibits rank-and-file employees for using procards for district travel costs such as airfares. A district card in Garrett's name is used to pay for flights.

The two-person team handles travel requests from the various schools and offices, but the airfare reservations themselves are handled by Advantage Travel.

These requests include travel for student groups, individual administrators and teachers and various other employees.

Antoinette Meliti, president of Advantage Travel, did not return calls this week. The district refused to make Vernon available for questions, and Lyman is on leave. Vernon referred Texas Watchdog to Chalita Cyprian, who heads the district’s Procard and Travel team. Cyprian did not return repeated calls this week.

But Garrett wondered why anyone with the travel needs of HISD would not use a travel agency.

“Wouldn't you use a travel agency?” Garrett asked a reporter when questioned about the use – and cost – of an outside travel agency. “Well, we don't own a [ticket] issuing company, you have to be a travel agent to issue tickets, someone has to issue the tickets. The two employees take a request of who is traveling and go over and secure tickets."

She said that travel on Southwest is booked by the HISD employees themselves, but said she wasn't sure why reservations with that carrier are handled differently.

"We thought about opening a ticket issuing company, but there is a lot that goes into that," Garrett said.

And in fact Advantage has booked flights for HISD with Southwest, adding in its $30 service fee.

What do other school systems do? Travel agents for other school districts say price is paramount: Story continues on page 2.

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org. Contact Lynn Walsh at 713-228-2850 or lynn@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of airplane window by Flickr user ztephen, used via a Creative Commons license

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