Taxpayer watchdogs question cost of TN education conference - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL

Taxpayer watchdogs question cost of TN education conference


It's hard to argue against investing in education in Tennessee, but the Channel 4 I-Team went undercover to find nearly $250,000 in spending in the state's adult education program that's raising the eyebrows of taxpayer watchdogs.

When the Channel 4 I-Team did some digging, we learned some of the state employees who planned an adult education conference at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center thought it might not be such a good idea. And it seems they didn't want you to find out about it.

Federal sequestration cuts dealt the adult education program a blow this year, forcing the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development to cut dozens of jobs, so taxpayer watchdogs question whether the department should've spent money the way it did at Nashville's best-known resort.

Hundreds of teachers from all over the state gathered in July for a conference that covered the new common core standards, a new electronic GED test and a new high school equivalency test.

It's not the subject matter of the conference, but rather the price tag that concerns taxpayer watchdogs. The total cost to taxpayers of the four days and three nights at Nashville's premier resort was nearly $250,000.

Taxpayers paid $96,000 for the hotel rooms, $34,000 for travel expenses, nearly $6,000 for the keynote speaker and more than $80,000 for meals.

"Eighty thousand dollars for food - that gives 'fat cats' an entirely new meaning," said Lindsay Boyd, director of policy for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a taxpayer watchdog group.

"We really shouldn't be talking about how much less we should be spending on training our teachers. We should be talking about how much more we can spend, because it's absolutely necessary," said Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The Channel 4 I-Team started investigating this conference after getting tips asking us how the state could afford its academy at Opryland after federal sequestration cuts sliced $750,000 out of the state's adult education budget.

The state made ends meet by making cuts, including 44 administrators were let go from the adult education program.

"We're not talking about cutting teachers. We're not talking about cutting classrooms," Hentschel said. "We're talking about people who were managing the program. I think everybody would want state government to be more efficient. And we saved $2 million in the process. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that."

Not everyone sees the cuts that way, though. The Channel 4 I-Team obtained an email sent in June to lawmaker State Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, complaining that "people have lost their jobs over this, communities have been set back and how does the state of Tennessee celebrate?"

The email continues that state administrators, "will be living it up at the summer academy at the Opryland hotel."

Gresham forwarded the email to Labor Department Commissioner Burns Phillips, who wrote to his staff, "Clearly we need to discuss this. Facts, facts, facts, what is the complete story?"

The complete story shows the Opryland Resort was the only hotel that submitted a bid to host the conference. It was a bid that included $107 per hotel room, $23 per continental breakfast and $45 per person for lunch buffets.

The Channel 4 I-Team asked if there was a cheaper way to hold the conference.

"There's really not," Hentschel said. "When you look at these teachers, they have full-time jobs during the course of the year. You look at having one conference at which you can bring them all together and address all of these major issues."

When questions came up about the cost, emails obtained by the Channel 4 I-Team show organizers considered canceling the Opryland contract altogether.

A University of Tennessee employee planning the conference wrote, if "we don't provide breakfast or lunch, this would reduce the contract considerably. If we aren't spending bunches on fancy meals, the news shouldn't be able to say much."

But adult education administrator Marva Doremus responded, "Leaving the hotel is such a hassle unless [they] walk over to Opry Mills. I hate to drop the food thing."

In another email, Doremus wrote that any money not used on training goes back to locals for instruction. But, instead of finding ways to cut costs on the conference, emails show administrators focused on keeping you in the dark about their conference.

Doremus wrote, "Do we have people checking nametags for each session? This is to ensure that any media do not slip in."

The Channel 4 I-Team asked the agency's spokesman about that email.

"We don't have anything to hide, but we know that you're after these kind of stories. You've done this before several times," Hentschel said.

That's true. In February, the Channel 4 I-Team's undercover cameras revealed $131,000 in spending at a state conference in Gatlinburg. In May, we showed you another Tennessee Department of Labor conference with a total bill of $86,000.

And taxpayer watchdogs say if the training is essential, and all of the spending is necessary, there should be no need for secrecy.

"If the department was truly interested in showcasing the positive reforms that they claim they've been making, they should hope that media come. They should hope that they get positive feedback from taxpayers," Boyd said.

"We just don't want the media trying to make this into something that it's not. What this is, is a training for teachers. It's money well spent," Hentschel said.

But emails show it wasn't just the media raising questions about whether this was all a good idea. Way back in January, before any of the Channel 4 I-Team's stories aired, an organizer wrote, "wonder of all wonders, Marva [Doremus, the adult education administrator] listened to my plea about the perception of Opryland on the heels of this restructure and said I could find a different location."

But in the end, the state says it got a good deal at Opryland.

"To say we shouldn't spend money on training our teachers is absolutely false. It's money well spent. It's not a waste at all," Hentschel said.

The conference's schedule shows it had a total of about 13 hours of classes spread out over three days, plus one working lunch.

The Channel 4 I-Team asked if the state could have held a shorter training academy to cut down on those hotel and meal costs, but a spokesman says leaving the conference at 5 p.m. on day two and driving hours home for some teachers who live on other ends of the state would have been unreasonable.

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