By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Top Joplin school administrators spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel since the May 2011 tornado, much of it storm-related.
Total transactions related to travel on the credit cards of Superintendent C.J. Huff and Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer in the two years following the tornado came to $42,625, according to a Globe review of receipts provided by the district. Receipts represented costs for meals, airfare, fuel or mileage reimbursements, taxis or shuttles, parking or airline fees, and lodging.
Nearly half of the total amount — $20,402 — included costs of travel for other district staff. Excluding expenses of others, Huff spent at least $13,600 on travel since the tornado, while Besendorfer spent at least $8,600.
Huff said last week he wasn’t surprised by the numbers. He acknowledged that administrators have traveled extensively over the past two years, often because of exceptional circumstances caused by the tornado.
But that travel schedule has already begun to slow down, with fewer trips and events planned, Huff said.
“When I look at my calendar over the next year, there’s a little bit of that, a few things here and there I’ve agreed to do,” he said. “It feels more like normal.”
Much of administrators’ travel fell into a category that Huff calls the “thank-you campaign,” which involves visiting groups that assisted with Joplin’s recovery and thanking them for their contributions. Under this campaign, Huff has traveled around the state to visit with groups such as the Missouri National Guard and the St. Louis Suburban School Nurses’ Association.
The benefit, he said, is that the spotlight is kept on Joplin, and the district’s needs continue to be met.
“One thing they tell me in our office (is that) donations started to taper off at the one-year mark, and then we started this thank-you campaign, and the donations started to pick up again,” he said.
A second category of district travel is what Huff classifies as “outliers that typically wouldn’t happen” but for the tornado. These were trips in which administrators were asked to speak about their experiences, such as Huff’s presentations at the April 2012 Spring Preparedness Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, and the annual Summit on Emergency Disaster Planning for Colleges, Universities and K-12 Schools in Toronto in October 2012.
Also falling under this category were trips taken to accept post-tornado honors, including a trip to Los Angeles this past February in which Huff was recognized by the American Association of School Administrators as a finalist for the Superintendent of the Year award.
The expenses also reflect trips administrators take every year, such as those to the Missouri School Boards’ Association conference, the National School Boards Association conference, which varies by location, and to Washington, D.C., with other Joplin leaders to lobby politicians, Huff said.
Although Huff is also listed on a national speakers circuit, the Washington Speakers Bureau, he said the organization approached him and asked him to be on its speakers list, and he has had only one speaking engagement through that organization to date.
According to the receipts, flights were booked in the economy or coach class.
Fast-food restaurants such as Taco Bell and Dairy Queen are a couple of favorites.
Starbucks, Panera and Applebee’s were popular choices, too, as were restaurants and food vendors located within airports.
In fact, Huff’s Starbucks receipts were nearly identical to one another — always a white chocolate mocha, often paired with a blueberry scone, usually for about $7.
He joked last week that he recently gave those up.
Administrators typically stayed in bigger hotels when traveling in bigger cities, often in conjunction with national conferences or events and often reimbursed by event organizers. Huff, for example, stayed in the $260-per-night Hay Adams hotel in Washington, D.C., in January.
He also used Priceline.com to find a hotel in the Chicago Loop — Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel — for $118.51 per night, including taxes and fees.
Less expensive hotels, including the Holiday Inn in Columbia and the Tan-Tar-A resort in Osage Beach, the site of the annual school boards’ association conference, were frequently used locally.
Jeff Flowers, president of the Board of Education, said the board has supported the administration’s travel over the past two years.
“All of the trips that they’ve taken in relationship to any of the tornado-recovery activities, to my knowledge, were all approved by the board,” he said. “At the time, there was a lot of support pouring in for the Joplin schools. It (the thank-you campaign) was important to us because without a lot of the help that we received, I don’t know if we would be back up and running as fast as we were.”
Reimbursements of travel costs from the organizations that hosted or sponsored the events amounted to more than $16,000 of the $42,625 according to the records.
Huff’s airfare, hotel, taxi and meal costs were covered by a $766 check from organizers of a September 2011 conference hosted by the Office of Emergency Management and Communications in Chicago, at which the superintendent spoke about community resiliency following the tornado.
Organizers of the Alaska conference paid the school district $1,112.10 to reimburse Huff’s airfare and lodging, and Huff’s trip to Toronto was reimbursed by event organizers for $876.05. Huff himself wrote the district a check for more than $2,000 in February to cover costs associated with taking his family with him to Los Angeles.
Several of Besendorfer’s trips were also reimbursed.
The district received $833.20 from the state of Wisconsin to reimburse airfare and meal expenses incurred by Besendorfer, who was part of a four-person panel discussing the Joplin tornado during the Governor’s Conference on Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Appleton, Wis., on March 15-16, 2012.
And the Nebraska Council of School Administrators reimbursed the district $1,306.80 to cover travel for Besendorfer and other district staff who participated in the council’s annual Administrators’ Days in Kearney in July 2012.
The district spent more than $15,000 on lodging, transportation and meals in fall 2011 to send 66 administrators, teachers, parents and community members to visit two dozen schools in eight states. The purpose was to discover what practices and design features at those schools could be incorporated into Joplin’s newest schools during the rebuilding, administrators said at the time.
In preparation for equipping the new schools with millions of dollars’ worth of furniture, several administrators visited furniture manufacturers in Michigan, Wisconsin and even Germany last fall. The trips were paid by the manufacturers and gave administrators the chance to test furniture in the companies’ showrooms, the district said at the time.
Joplin city officials have also taken some significant trips during the same time frame. A review of expenses for the council and city manager found that total travel expenses in the nearly two years after Jan. 1, 2011, were $13,611.66, the Globe reported in late 2012.
The bulk of the expenses were logged by former Mayor Mike Woolston and current Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean to pay for a mix of annual recurring trips, such as those for conferences or lobbying efforts, as well as trips taken on behalf of Joplin’s post-tornado recognition.
Officials outside the public sphere have also traveled in the wake of the tornado to share Joplin’s story. Joplin’s fire chief and emergency management director were listed among the panelists featured with Besendorfer at the Wisconsin conference in March 2012. And the September 2011 emergency management conference in Chicago that featured Huff as a speaker also was set to include a presentation by the manager of the Joplin Regional Airport.
Model Schools Conference
The Globe has separately requested expense reports related to the district’s recent trip to the annual Model Schools Conference. District staff were still working to fill that request as of Friday.