Lakeville Public School District funds all-expense-paid trip to Florida

Skelly was lone vote against proposal that disregarded district policies

The Lakeville School District funded an estimated $12,500 all-expenses paid extended field trip to Tampa Bay, Fla., for six male high school students and three district staff members, Feb. 19-23.

The selected students and staff missed three school days to attend “Black, Brown & College Bound,” a national summit held at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel designed to encourage African-American and Latino males to graduate from high school and attend college.

The district covered all meals ($945), $249 per night lodging at a nearby hotel ($5,202), air travel and transportation ($2,697) and registration ($3,675) for students, Lakeville South High School dean Shaun Murphy, Alternative Learning Center Principal Cliff Skagan and School Success liaison Ray Hawes.

Featured at the conference were African-American and Latino professors, authors, scholars, cultural critics and activists whose presentations were designed to encourage students who may face significant obstacles to complete high school and attend college.

Students who attended were invited to join the advisory panel for the InterCultural Alliance of Student Scholars leadership team, a post in their schools they would be expected to retain through senior year.

The Lakeville School Board approved the trip on a 4-1 vote Feb. 12.

Board Member Bob Erickson said he abstained from the vote because he served on the state Integration Revenue Replacement Task Force charged with recommending changes to the state’s racial integration funding. The trip was funded with Integration & Equity grant dollars, which are used to promote college readiness and close the achievement gap for underserved populations.

Board Member Jim Skelly cast the dissenting vote, citing concerns about the trip’s cost when the district is struggling with millions in budget cuts, lowered enrollment and staff layoffs.

Skelly also questioned the fairness of paying for all expenses in relation to other groups who have had to raise funds for their trips.

He also pointed out several variances from district policy in the request process and the district’s funding of the trip.

District 194 policy specifies that, except for one adviser/coach, all expenses associated with an extended trip, including lodging and transportation, “must be garnered from the participants and fundraising.”

The policy allows for exceptions under two circumstances: if a trip is the result of advancement in a Minnesota State High School League-sponsored tournament or “in the face of emergency conditions.”

In an interview, Skelly said this was not an emergency.

“There wasn’t a tornado or anything,” he said.

During the meeting, Skelly also raised concerns that the request itself disregarded district policy because it was made to the board seven days before the trip was scheduled.

District policy says there should be 30-day notice period before any extended field trip. That directive is printed at the top of the extended field trip request form filled out by staff.

The policy says district staff cannot discuss an extended field trip with students and parents before it is fully approved by the School Board.

Both those policies were not followed because district officials first wanted to ensure they had some students of color who were interested in attending before making the board request, according to District 194 Teaching and Learning Services Director Barb Knudsen.

She also said they had just recently learned about the conference.

Dated signatures on the form indicate Activities Director Neil Strader and principals at both high schools were asked to approve the request in early to mid-January.

District Superintendent Lisa Snyder signed off on the request Feb. 5, a week before it was brought for board approval.

Knudsen said the conference would help the district meet its integration goals, reduce disparities and build student leadership qualities.

Board Member Michelle Volk said she also had concerns about how close the trip came to not meeting board “guidelines,” but supported student involvement in the program because few are encouraged to go to college and there they would be encouraged by passionate speakers to seek higher education.

Staff who attended the trip would not speak to the newspaper about it, but District Equity Coordinator Cynthia Hays said she wanted to go and described the trip as “awesome.”

She said it was a “kickoff for our leadership initiative,” and that staff members expect students to come back and serve as mentors.

Hays said staff members hope to make the trip an annual event, but it is dependent on integration funding, a hot-button topic in the Legislature.

During the meeting, Board Chair Roz Peterson said the board was given a short time to do “a lot of research” to ensure district dollars were wisely spent.

“This isn’t a rubber-stamp board,” she said, calling this particular case an exception to the rule.

“We don’t just let things slide by without trying to do our homework,” Peterson said. “I would advise the staff to try to get their field trips in a timely manner … so we don’t have a panic attack and go through what we went through this weekend.”

In an interview, Skelly said he “could not support expenditures of nearly $13,000 to send a handful of students on a field trip at a time when we’re cutting $3.5 million from our budget.”

The district is also planning to seek millions in a levy referendum this fall.