On Your Side Investigation: Midfield City Schools spends thousands on administrative retreat

Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 3:57 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 13, 2023 at 4:49 AM CST
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MIDFIELD, Ala. (WBRC) - Alabamians continue to tighten their belts to save money during one of the highest periods of inflation.

You may not be able to say that for the way some officials are spending your tax dollars at one of the most expensive hotels in the state.

The Grand Bohemian is a boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Mountain Brook. It’s also where Midfield City Schools held it’s 2022 administrative retreat. The theme: self-care.

Midfield Superintendent Dr. Shun Williams said the theme was fitting following a difficult year of COVID, losing students and education challenges.

“My team came to me and said, ‘let’s really have a retreat that centered around burnout, self-care and mental wellness’ and I thought it was a great idea,” Williams explained.

That 3-day retreat cost nearly $25,000, and we’ve got the receipts.

$466 is how much they paid per night at the Grand Bohemian, with tax. The district took twelve administrators, each stayed 2 nights topping out at more than $11,000.

Food and drinks added up to more than $6,500. Breakfast, the most expensive meal, topped out at nearly $2,400 for two days combined. That also includes their bill for a private chef.

Snacks added up to nearly $2,000 with $560 of that was spent on candy. Their itemized receipts showed two ‘Bohemian Breaks’, those snacks were $420 dollar each.

It’s important to note that this is legal.

When asked whether the expenses were justifiable, Williams defended the costs.

“I’ve heard stories of where people are going to lay on the beach and do things that might not be connected to work, then I will say it’s unjustifiable,” Williams affirmed. “But all of our work is student centered, we’re looking at our mission statement, we’re looking at data points.”

In fact, Williams says administrators were able to accomplish things at the Grand Bohemian that they couldn’t elsewhere.

“Being able to get away to focus and to recreate a school year that is going to engage our students, I think the taxpayers would really appreciate that we’re putting priority and intentional strategies as it relates to our students,” Williams said. “I think that’s what they pay us to do.”

Midfield’s district serves around 1,000 students at three schools. All three are recognized as Title I schools, a designation for schools that serve students from low-income families.

“We are a [sic] underserving community,” added Williams. “We have to come together and plan on how can we do that in the most effective way and this retreat is one of the most powerful tools that I have seen to help us come together and to get the results.”

Williams deflected our question about whether the retreat could be planned for less money.

“Well, when you say less money, especially during COVID things have gone up,” he stated. “But like I said, we tried to keep it pretty much around what we typically spend for the retreat. I can’t put a price tag on the value of an optimum educational experience for our students.”

We also noticed a $306 dollar spa fee. Williams says it was for a group massage.

“It was from the shoulders up,” Williams answered. “It was not a typical massage where you go into a room and you lay down. We were in the circle and we were talking about self-care strategies and the things and different events that happened during COVID.”

This retreat isn’t a one-time thing. They’ve been doing it for years. As for the watermark, “I would say it could range from $15,000 to $30,000,” said Williams. “It just depends on once again what we’re trying to do.”

The board stands behind the charges too. Board member Nathan Williams says he won’t vote against something the superintendent needs for education.

“We don’t want for him to ask the board for something, we’ve asked him to do a job and tie his hands where he can’t do it,” explained Nathan Williams.

If you’re a taxpayer and have questions about these expenses, you’re out of luck.

“I would be out of place talking about that without the whole board, that is not my place,” Nathan Williams answered.

WBRC pressed Williams, asking again whether he would refuse to discuss these charges with the people who elected him.

“That’s not my job,” Nathan Williams replied.

The money for this retreat came out of Midfield’s general fund. The $24,000 account for a small percentage of its overall budget but WBRC feels it’s important for you to know how they’re spending your money.

We also filed open records requests with the nine other city school districts in Jefferson County to see how they compare. Our attorneys had to get involved to get you some of those numbers. That’s when we learned one of the districts spent nearly $100,000 on its administrative retreat in 2022.

We’ll break down all those numbers in part two of our investigation on WBRC FOX6 News.

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