An Open Letter from
Superintendent Tom Shelton
Every day, the families of 40,000 children trust the Fayette County Public Schools to do what’s best for their kids. I take that responsibility to heart and feel a servant’s calling to meet the high expectations of our families, our students and our community. The taxpayers of Fayette County have committed resources to provide a world class education for our young people and our school board and leadership team work diligently to be good stewards of those funds.
A local television news station recently raised questions about the travel and spending in our special education department. We provided more than 5,700 pages of open records in response to several requests. In the end, they aired a story that centered on isolated examples of unprofessional communications and poor judgment by a handful of employees. Those situations are personnel matters that have been dealt with accordingly and appropriately.
As public servants, we have to be above reproach in everything we do. Transparency and accountability are core values for our district and because perception is reality, it is important to be forthright about the questions raised and to address any areas of concern.
One of the conferences in question was paid for by the Scholastic publishing company, a district vendor. In 2009 the special education department spent $470,000 from federal stimulus money with Scholastic to cover the cost of a computer-based reading program for middle and high school students. The contract with Scholastic was completed before special education employees were invited to attend the workshop.
Although an inappropriate email exchange occurred related to the open bar at the conference, spending with Scholastic in the months following the conference was less than $7,500. The following year, the special education department spent less than $5,000 with Scholastic. The facts do not support a link between the travel and future spending decisions.
Our district spends roughly $48 million a year to educate our students with special needs. The travel highlighted by the news story averaged $15,000 a year for a team of seven employees. Professional development for our teachers and administrators is vital to ensure that our students have the benefit of the most current and cutting edge instructional practices. The travel in this department was not excessive and costs were within reason.
The story criticized the cost of hotel rooms for a conference in Orlando, but failed to mention that the five employees at the training stayed at the conference hotel and shared rooms. Over a five year period, there was an instance of two employees missing a three hour afternoon conference session to take a side trip to the Grand Canyon that they paid for themselves. That situation has been addressed and a policy change made last fall should safeguard against such instances.
As part of our district commitment to continuous improvement, we are always looking for ways to strengthen our processes and tighten our procedures. In December we adopted several amendments to our Professional Leave & Travel Policy Handbook and made many improvements to our procedures. A new addition now requires proof of conference attendance. We will also be adding a step to our professional leave request process to help us flag any travel paid for by district vendors and give us the opportunity to review any potential conflicts of interest.
I do not want to minimize the reporting done or defend a lapse in professional judgment demonstrated in these isolated incidents. I expect more of our employees and I take personal responsibility when we fall short. We will be reinforcing best practices and expectations for social media use with our employees and will continue to scrutinize our professional development procedures to look for ways to improve. I am also developing a specific code of ethics for our administrators. But I do want our community to understand that their tax dollars are being spent judiciously. We are committed to maximizing the educational return on your investment in the students of Fayette County and we will not let you down.
As always, please do not hesitate to contact me with questions at either firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 381-4104.
Tom Shelton, PhD
Fayette County Public Schools