Last April, Elmer Wolfe Elementary School first-grade teacher Carlie Flanders was surprised on national television when she received a $20,000 check for the school from "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

But a decision by Elmer Wolfe Principal Tracy Belski to use a portion of the funds to attend a professional development conference over the summer in Las Vegas with five teachers, that received approval from the school system's administration, drew criticism from some members of the community.

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"From my perspective being in education for 36 years they shouldn't have spent all that money to go to a conference in Vegas," said Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, who works as a part-time teacher for the school system. "If it was a great conference, and I'm sure it was, the school would send one or two teachers to a teacher's conference to get all the information that's there: all the workshops, get all the information and report back to the school."

Frazier said the issue was brought to his attention by concerned parents.

Sending six employees to the conference, Frazier said, seems "like a tremendous waste of money." His concern was echoed by Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, a retired CCPS teacher, who thought the funds could have been better spent.

Belski, in her second year as principal of Elmer Wolfe, said she and five teachers attended the Staff Development for Educators 2015 National Conference on Differentiated Instruction that was held from July 6-10. The five teachers, who are all currently employed by Carroll County Public Schools, were chosen from about 10-15 teachers who showed interest in attending, Belski said. Each teacher who wanted to attend the conference was required to submit a proposal, and teachers with the most compelling proposals were chosen to go, Belski said.

Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said he cut funding for out-of-state travel for professional development when he became superintendent in 2010 due to budgetary constraints, but school system policy allows school system employees to do so if funding is provided by a grant. Because the award was essentially a grant to the school and was not required for a specific use, Guthrie said it was approved.

"It was an approved activity and it was a worthwhile conference," Guthrie said.

Receiving the funds gave teachers the rare opportunity to enhance their professional skills, which Belski believes, will afford students at Elmer Wolfe, a Title 1 school, a better education. Title 1 means the school is eligible to receive additional federal funding due to a high percentage of students from low-income families.

"I think the most important thing for people to understand is that we're an educational institution and our primary concern has to be our improving the education of the youngsters that come through our doors every day," Belski said. "And I'm very, very dedicated to that and when I think about how to use the money I want to make sure that the education of the students is our primary concern."

A total of $8,800 was spent to attend the conference, Guthrie said. About $2,200 was spent on hotel rooms, shared by three employees per room, for five nights; approximately $3,000 was spent on conference fees; about $2,300 was spent on transportation and roughly $1,200 was spent on food, he said.

"The most expensive part was paying for the sessions of professional development and mine was free, so then that freed up a little bit more to have another person go, so we could go to as many sessions as possible," Belski said, adding that tuition was free for principals if teachers from the same school attended.

Belski said although the community was most upset by the location of the conference, professional development conferences of that nature are not offered locally. She and the teachers were there strictly for professional reasons, she said.

"We definitely were not there on a vacation at all. I would not consider it a vacation; I was very tired when I returned," Belski said. "We did not party, and we were very committed to going to those sessions."

Teachers who attended the conference have met as a group this year to plan and provide professional development sessions for the rest of the school, Belski said.

Flanders, the first-grade teacher who received the award along with a $10,000 check for herself, was among the teachers who attended the conference.

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"I learned a lot. Writing was one of the most beneficial things that I learned," Flanders said. "I struggled a lot last year with writing with my particular group."

Flanders said she has been able to use new techniques she learned at the conference with students this year, and has incorporated a writer's workshop, a 30-minute writing block for students to work on various writing projects, into instruction time. Flanders explained that more opportunities for professional development should be afforded to teachers because it allows them to hone their skills and transfer that knowledge to the classroom.

"I think it's good to keep it fresh; I think it should be standard. I think everyone should be able to go and get some fresh professional development," Flanders said, seated in Belski's office.

Because the funding was provided to the school without any strings attached, Guthrie said there are no time constraints on when the money must be spent.

Belski said the school is still thinking of uses for the remaining money, but is not in a hurry to spend it.

Some parents and teachers wanted the school to install outside water fountains for students to stay hydrated at recess, which Belski said she is considering. Before the money is used by the school, it must be approved by the county, Belski said.

"Because we also use wellness to increase achievement, the outdoor fountains would be part of that," Belski said.

The school has also considered converting the courtyard into instructional areas or into a butterfly habitat, Guthrie said, in addition to purchasing Kindle Fire e-readers for students, instituting cultural programs, modifying its media center and hiring additional hourly staff to free up professional development opportunities for school staff.

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