tampabay.com

Putting brakes on field trip spending

The School Board questions using limited funds for students' trips.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published February 18, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - It's a tough time to get a field trip past the Hernando County School Board.

Earlier this month, it rejected a rock climbing and rafting venture to North Carolina for 18 students from West Hernando Middle School, citing concerns over liability and eligibility.

Board members said they were still frosted over a last-minute Rocky Mountain ski trip they grudgingly approved in December for a handful of high school students.

"We don't have any money, and we have these kids going everywhere," said board member Sandra Nicholson, questioning the academic value of such trips. "How many students went to Disney?"

Quite a few, according to district records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times under the state open-records laws.

Last year the district wrote checks totaling $78,796 to Walt Disney World in Orlando through its internal accounts - school-based coffers from fundraising, parent contributions and other nontax sources - and $3,877 more from its regular budget external accounts.

Local attraction Weeki Wachi Springs earned nearly as much, billing $78,276 from internal accounts, while Universal Orlando earned $52,469 and Busch Gardens in Tampa earned $43,540.

A Weeki Wachi spokesman said the park offered an $8.50 group rate to children and adults - enough for more than 9,200 visits last year from the Hernando County Schools.

Private bus companies billed at least $90,000 more to the district, including some purchase orders that specified theme-park trips.

Board members were astonished by the amount of money being spent on such trips.

"Those figures are scary," said Dianne Bonfield. "The amounts of money being spent to go to theme parks, that's absolutely staggering."

In many cases the costs are being borne by parents.

And while schools try to let families know there's money available if finances are tight, Nicholson said that might place unfair pressure on some.

"How many parents know that?" she said. "You're going to put it on a student's head to say, 'Come to me and say you don't have any money?' I wouldn't have."

Parent Lydia Pro has sent two of her children - a kindergartner and a sixth-grader at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics - on field trips to Disney this year, paying $30 to $50 apiece. Many parents also went along to chaperone and paid their own way, she said.

And did she approve of such trips?

"My kids are going to kill me, but I personally don't," she said, voicing a preference for "less extravagant" trips closer to home.

Board Chairman Pat Fagan, who also paid for his daughters at Challenger to visit Disney, expressed particular concern over another trip the board approved last year to a "sea camp" in the Florida Keys.

"There was only room for a certain number of kids on that trip, and other kids weren't able to go," Fagan said. "Every child should have the opportunity to attend."

Board Member Jim Malcolm said the district needs to consider whether such trips are the best use of limited funds, and pined for the days of simple end-of-year rewards.

"Back in my day we used to call them class picnics," he said. "Sometimes we went to the state park."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando county public schools

Field trip expenditures for 2005-06

Funds are from internal accounts - which include fundraising and parent payments but no taxpayer funds - and external accounts are from the general budget.

Internal External

Walt Disney World $78,796 $3,877

Weeki Wachi Springs $78,276

Universal Orlando $52,469

Busch Gardens $43,540 $1,830

Museum of Science and Industry $9,811 $646

SeaWorld $9,099

Lowry Park Zoo $5,687 $495

Florida Holocaust Museum $96 $1,200

Homosassa State Park $5,641 $228

Hernando Historical Museum $1,181

(Source: Hernando County School Board)