Taxpayers help pay bill for State Board of Ed meeting in Key West: Would a Zoom call have sufficed?

By: - May 11, 2022 7:19 pm

The southernmost point in the continental United States. Credit: Wikipedia

Florida’s State Board of Education, stationed in Tallahassee, traveled all the way down to Key West for a meeting Wednesday, partly at taxpayer expense for transportation and lodging in a tourist destination known for stray cats and chickens, flip-flops, and dive bars.

The seven-member board asked several local school district leaders to join them at the southernmost point in the continental United States to discuss topics such as teacher salaries, the cost of living, and high gas prices.

Take Supt. Rocky Hanna of Leon County schools. His district touches the Florida-Georgia line, and he had to fly to the very opposite tip of the state to attend the meeting, at a time when schoolchildren across the state are taking pivotal state exams in reading and math.

Meanwhile, board members expressed excitement about being in the iconic and scenic Keys, where the weather has been in the 80s.

“Kind of teasing us, coming in to the Keys,” Hanna said to the board, lightheartedly.

“I flew in late yesterday afternoon — I missed my first school board meeting, as superintendent, last night, unfortunately. But I flew over the beautiful blue waters, landed at about 5 o’clock, and will fly out over the blue waters again, leaving,” Hanna said. “So next time we could do it over the summer once school has ended — come back to Key West.”

Key West marked on a map of Florida. Source: Wikipedia

Interim education commissioner Jacob Oliva also traveled to the Keys for the meeting. That’s a 641-mile road trip if one were to drive from Tallahassee, or about 10 hours. The seven board members live in various places in Florida, and all of them would expect to use transportation by car or plane and would need lodging and food.

“I believe DOE [Department of Education] will be reimbursing the district,” Chris Petley, communications staffer for Leon County Schools, said in an email to the Phoenix about Hanna’s travel to the Keys. “It was around $1,000 for hotel and flight.”

Brevard Superintendent Mark Mullins drove a rental car to the meeting, according to district communications staffer Russell Bruhns. Mullins started from Viera in Brevard County and drove for six hours.

Mullins will be reimbursed by the state education officials, Bruhns told the Phoenix. (Keep in mind that those reimbursements would come at least in part from taxpayer dollars.)

Florida’s gas prices as of Wednesday averaged of $4.32 a gallon, according to data from AAA, varying from county to county.

Other district superintendents at the meeting were from St. Johns and Bradford counties, both in Northeast Florida.

Superintendents from Lee County in southwest Florida on the Gulf side, and Palm Beach County on the Atlantic, also were in attendance. While these districts are both in the southern part of the state, school officials would still have to drive for several hours or get a flight to Key West.

The superintendents were called to the Key West meeting because the state board sought updates on raising teacher salaries, saying the particular school districts were late in settling teacher pay negotiations with their local teacher unions.

A newer and controversial member of the state board, Ester Byrd, remarked that teachers need these salary increases to offset rising living expenses, such as rising gas prices.

“These are teachers. They’re paying $4 dollars a gallon for gas and they’re paying more for their groceries. I think, I find it — I am kind of floored by the fact that the teachers’ union would have no incentive to speed things up and get money into the pockets of teachers,” Byrd said.

The Phoenix reached out to the Department of Education for information on travel costs for the Key West meeting and is awaiting a response.

The Board of Education often travels to different parts of the state for its regularly scheduled meetings, or will hold conference calls to deal with short-term matters.

Theresa Axford, superintendent of the Monroe County school district, said that the Wednesday meeting was the first time the Board of Education visited the Keys.

“This is the first time that the state board has been here, and it is a momentous occasion for us. So thank you all for coming. I believe Dr. (Jonathan) Gueverra (president of The College of the Florida Keys) showed you some delightful amenities of the Keys last evening, so I hope you enjoyed them,” she said to the board.

The Phoenix has reached out to The College of the Florida Keys for information about what these “delightful amenities of the Keys” were, and is awaiting response.

Board member Monesia Brown said at the end of the meeting that traveling to different parts of Florida is important.

“I am also grateful for the opportunity to be here in the Keys, not just because it’s one of the most amazing places on Earth, but truly because I think our presence around the state matter,” she said. “I think it’s critically important to show our leadership by going to other places in the state that we may not commonly go.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.