8 Metro Schools employees stayed at Waldorf Astoria hotel on tax - WSMV Channel 4

8 Metro Schools employees stayed at Waldorf Astoria hotel on taxpayer’s dime

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

The News 4 I-Team found eight Metro Schools employees stayed at a Waldorf Astoria hotel in New Orleans last month on the taxpayer’s dime.

With its chandeliers, rooftop pool and legendary Sazerac bar, The Roosevelt is more than a hotel. It’s considered a New Orleans staple. It’s also where eight Metro Schools employees stayed last month for an education conference.

The group included several instructional coaches, a reading clinic coordinator and the district’s director of literacy. The two-night stay cost roughly $8,760, according to preliminary data provided by Metro Schools.

“I think it’s a joke,” said Mary Holden, a Metro Schools parent.

It’s one of the latest out-of-state trips approved by administrators within the past year. Other destinations include Vancouver, Canada, Los Angeles and New York.

Last September the I-Team obtained a memo from Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph which outlined a travel freeze with some exceptions.

The following February the I-Team found Metro Schools employees staying at the Ritz-Carlton at Amelia Island.

In response to our report, Joseph stated the district would scrutinize the locations of conferences more intently.

Then the I-Team filed an open records request in March. The data showed Metro Schools employees embarked on 80 out-of-state trips over the course of four months. Those trips cost more than $590,000.

“I say it’s problematic,” Holden said. “Especially with all the travel they had last year, it seems like there’s no end.”

In the past, Metro Schools did not agree to an on-camera interview. But this time they made Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction David Williams available.

He and other administrators approved the New Orleans trip.

There were some questions Williams simply could not answer.

“Is this travel freeze still in place?" asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“I'm not aware of that question, let me time out,” Williams said. “I get a time out.”

At that point, Williams and a spokeswoman stopped the interview and stepped outside.

After several minutes, the question was repeated.

“So it's unclear if the travel freeze is still in place?” Autler asked.

“To my understanding, I don't really know the answer to that question about where we are with the travel freeze,” Williams said.

“How much is too much travel?” Autler said.

 “That's such an ambiguous question,” Williams said.

“You don't have to answer that,” said Metro Schools spokeswoman Michelle Michaud.

“Because taxpayer dollars are involved, is once a month something that you would like to see? Once a year?” Autler asked.

“That's not a question in terms of me putting an exact amount,” Williams said. “We have a responsibility to the taxpayer, we have a budget, and we have guidelines, and we stay within those guidelines and we stay within our budget that was allocated by the school board.”

Williams explained why the out-of-state trips are necessary for educators.

“It also gives our folks an opportunity to network with others that are out-of-state in other districts similar to ours that are doing some of the same work,” he said.

“While this training is important, is it necessary for employees to stay at luxury hotels?” Autler asked.

“The organization that sponsored the trip that performed the learning had a block of rooms at a discounted rate and we were able to stay in those rooms where the conference was held so that eliminated any ground travel back and forth between the hotel and the conference and it was a uniquely discounted room rate.”

Over the summer, administrators approved four out-of-state trips in Williams' department.

The I-Team is still waiting on information about how many other trips were taken by employees throughout the district.

Leaders now deny a travel freeze was ever in place, even though a memo penned by Dr. Joseph last year explicitly referenced a “travel freeze.”

Michaud said the district remains vigilant with taxpayer dollars and looks at every travel request with diligence.

Michaud said some travel is mandatory to stay in compliance with International Baccalaureate and Cambridge course standards.

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