Millions spent on out-of-state travel by Department of Education

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Business and government groups often get a lot of flak when they come to Hawaii for corporate travel, but what about when it’s Hawaii taxpayers’ money getting spent going to the mainland and beyond, and it’s coming from the Department of Education?

While public school students in Hawaii are hard work in class, many in the DOE are often hitting the road — and it doesn’t come cheap.

Through an open-records filing with the DOE, KHON2 obtained detailed spending reports that show a million or two spent on out-of-state travel by the DOE every year — a total of more than $7 million just since fiscal year 2010.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” retired teacher Dolly Phillips said. “Because why should the money be spent out of state? It should be spent on the children, maybe new books?”

So what are they going for?

The DOE tells KHON2 it’s for things like school turnaround meetings, Race to the Top and common-core standards.

“We can learn the best practices right here,” Phillips said. “You get your own group together and you share knowledge back and forth with each other. I just don’t think that’s right.”

“I think we have qualified teachers here,” said Moses Andres, grandfather of a school teacher, “And they can do a good job just as well as in the mainland.”

“We need some of it for that,” former Molokai school counselor Marian Zahn said, “But we also really need to focus in on the primary needs of the children and the teachers.”

KHON2 asked for the details by name and found several who have racked up more than $10,000 in travel — among them, a Big Island special needs supervisor and the child nutrition program director. There are even a handful of cases where related employees may have gotten to travel for work together.

“I don’t like when they take the arts funds away, could they have spent this on that? Sure, and teachers,” said Alice Booth, whose children and grandchildren both attended or currently go to public schools.

The DOE points out they used about $4.6 million in federal funds to pay for some of the travel.

“I love that, I love that,” hula teacher Greta Hegerfeldt said. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to do anything and the federal funds will come along, you want to bring that into the state. I think that’s good.”

Some aren’t sold.

“Keep [the federal money] here in Hawaii and the teachers would have more money for the school kids to learn,” Andres said, “More new computers, new everything.”

Things like Skype or online conferencing could save a bundle. The DOE tells KHON2 they’ve significantly minimized travel using these methods and scheduling things here.

The DOE says there actually may be more, not less, travel in the future, saying in written response to KHON2, “Student travel and invitations to present at national conferences are on the rise as our students are doing well and our reform efforts are getting noticed.”

All that travel leads to hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid to various travel agencies. Panda Travel — nearly a million bucks — says they used to have an exclusive, but says the DOE moved away from bids like that.

“When you go with the big mega-agencies online, you’re dealing with restrictive tickets, it’s penalties and stuff for changes,” said Mike Brown of Panda Travel, “And these guys always have to make changes because meetings get moved, things like that happen.”

“Also you have people booking with out-of-state agencies,” Brown said. “That’s kind of keeping the money out of Hawaii.”

The DOE says, “We get multiple quotes to find best prices, base approval on what specific strategic plan goals the travel will help us achieve.”

The DOE assured KHON2 after our cost review, “We will continue to keep a tight focus on travel and costs.”

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