On Your Side Investigation: School district spent more than $90K on retreat

Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 8:34 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Nearly every school system holds an administrative retreat during the summer to plan for the upcoming school year.

In part one of our investigation, we told you Midfield City Schools spent $24,054 on a retreat at the Grand Bohemian, one of the most expensive hotels in the state. Those charges only account for hotel rooms and food.

It prompted WBRC to file open records requests with other city school districts in Jefferson County to see how Midfield’s retreat compares.

In 2022, one of the smaller districts far outspent the rest.

Records revealed Bessemer City Schools spent $92,526 on its administrative retreat last year. The district took 57 people to Huntsville for a 4-day, 3-night retreat at the Westin Hotel. That’s adds up to $1,623 per person.

Of the 10 city school districts, Bessemer and Midfield were the only systems to hold overnight retreats.

Birmingham City Schools, the largest city district, held its retreat at Renaissance Ross Bridge. It took 83 employees and spent $18,221, which was mostly spent on food. This breaks down to $219 per person.

Fairfield, Tarrant, Trussville, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Hoover and Homewood schools held their administrative retreats on campus. Most were free.

Homewood City Schools spent $254 on food. Vestavia administrators left campus for half a day to go to Topgolf for training and an hour of golf. The event was sponsored.

2022 was the first year Hoover City Schools spent money on a retreat: $5,000 for materials.

We also wanted to know what districts were spending before COVID-19 hit, so we requested five years’ worth of data.

On average, all districts with the exception of Birmingham, Bessemer and Midfield schools spent less than $1,000. Midfield aims to spend between $15,000 to $30,000 each year. Bessemer held retreats in 2020-2022, on average those retreats cost nearly $60,000. Birmingham City Schools held all its retreats from 2017-2022, with the exception of 2019 and 2020, at Renaissance Ross Bridge, which cost around $30,000 on average.

The highest-spending districts also serve some of the most financially-insecure families. The majority of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a federal school lunch program based on a family’s ability to pay.

88% of students in Midfield qualify for free and reduced lunch, in Bessemer 85% of their students receive free and reduced lunch and this goes for 82% of the students in Birmingham City Schools.

A quarter of Homewood’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The average cost of their retreat over the last 5 years: $318.

Mountain Brook administrators left campus in 2019 for a day at Smooth Rock Conference Center. It paid $500 to rent the space, $127 for food and $1,500 for a facilitator to lead professional development. 3% of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Vestavia Hills only held its retreat offsite in 2018, at UAB’s campus library. The cost was covered by a sponsor. 11% of their students depend on free and reduced lunch.

It took four months and getting our attorneys involved to receive a general breakdown of Bessemer’s retreat expenses. We’ve since requested to see itemized receipts from those retreats and are working with their attorneys to fulfill this open records request.

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