MARIETTA, Ga. -- When students in the Cobb county school district head back to school on Monday, they will have bigger classes and 350 fewer teachers. School districts throughout metro Atlanta have had to make tough budget choices again this year. That's why some say they were caught off guard by the district's decision to spend at least $300,000 to send nearly 150 people to a conference in Orlando.
Critics saw it as an all expense paid trip to Disney for a hand selected group of teachers and administrators. We tagged along to see for ourselves. While the conference was selling discount tickets to the parks, taxpayers can breathe a sigh, we only saw a few attendees leave early.
We wanted to learn more about what was being taught at the Model Schools conference hosted by the International Center for Leadership in Education, but organizers wouldn't let us attend any of the sessions, or even stand in the conference hall.
The district did give us about three dozen conference evaluation forms, listing what attendees learned. The two most common comments were about the importance of literacy and building relationships with students.
"If they can get that sense of ownership doing something a little bit different that will help engage and light the fire in our educational process, that's what we're looking for," said Cobb county superintendent Michael Hinojosa.
That fire cost roughly $2,100 a person or $300,000 for the group. If the district did indeed pay its part with Title I & II funding, it's telling the truth when it says the money could not have been used to save jobs. But it did have more than two years to figure out how to spend it. Considering 70% of the trip's cost went to travel expenses, some have criticized the district's decision.
"We have a model school right here in Cobb, Walton High School is amazing. Why couldn't we bring teachers over to study that high school?," said Connie Jackson, President of the Cobb County Association of Educators.
"There's probably a better way to bring Bill Daggett here for say 10% of the cost where you could reach ten times as many teachers," said John Adams, Executive Director of Educators First.
In fact Bill Daggett, the chairman of the organization that hosted the conference was here in Atlanta earlier this year speaking to about 500 Cobb county district employees and parents. But Dr. Hinojosa says the Model Schools conference was much bigger than one school or speaker.
"They've taken the most improved schools throughout the country from elementary to middle school and high schools and they're coming together to share what made them successful. You can't get that anywhere else," Hinojosa said.
The State Board of Education says it keeps a close eye on how Title I money is spent and supported the trip. State School Superintendent John Barge attended himself.
"We're looking at what are your student's needs. How can we use this funding in the most efficient, effective way to get the most bang for your buck for your students. That's what it's all about," said a district spokesperson.
Perhaps what frustrates Jackson more, is that the bulk of the people who attended went using what's called local money. Those are funds from cell tower lease contracts, vending machine and picture sales. It is money the schools can spend on anything. At least 17 schools sent at least four people to the event. That's $8,000 by the district's own estimate that each school could have used for technology, new books, even teacher bonuses.
But supporters say an energized, well trained staff, is the best investment any school could make.
"So few times leaders, principals, practitioners are not at the table conversing together as districts in an environment that is relaxed where you can brainstorm, you can reflect, you can get rigorous information and then step back as a team," said attendee Anne Ostholthoff.
Ostholthoff runs the Atlanta based non-profit Teachers Ignite, a community forum for teachers to share stories about what works in the classroom. Ostholthoff believed in the conference curriculum so much, she used her own money to attend.
"Every story talked about relationships being the strongest reason schools turned around. So to have our superintendent in Georgia want teachers to focus on one thing and that thing being 'renew your passion for teaching' because he knows that will lead to relationships, is an amazing thing," said Ostholthoff.
As adults debate, it is perhaps the students that will be the final judge of whether it was money well spent.