A divided city school board approved a contract this week that includes $15,198 for parents and staff to spend six nights in meetings at a Baltimore hotel.
Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, one of three board members who voted against the contract, called the expenditure "grandiose." Another, Neil Duke, called it "rather exorbitant," and he told administrators that their presentation to justify the spending was "filled with platitudes."
"We are the stewards of wise fiscal prudence," Duke said.
The $110,306 contract - approved Tuesday night by a 5-3 vote, with one board member absent - is designed to increase parental involvement in city schools by providing 25 potential parent leaders with three weekends of intense training.
The parents, as well as seven conference facilitators and one city school administrator, will stay at the Radisson Hotel at Cross Keys during each of the weekends. The system will pay $149 a night for each of 17 rooms, with two people in most rooms. Meals for 33 people will cost $18,309, or $555 apiece.
No board member disputed the need to get parents more involved in city schools. Also, the federal funds that will pay for the training must be spent by the end of the fiscal year in June, or the school system will lose the money. How the funds should be spent, though, was a matter of dispute.
Hettleman chided administrators for failure to provide research to justify such training, and he questioned the cost effectiveness of spending the equivalent of $4,400 per parent in a school system with 83,000 students. He said the $110,000 could be spent far more efficiently by providing less expensive training to a bigger group of parents.
Board member Anirban Basu joined Hettleman and Duke in opposing the contract. He said he felt "uncomfortable" about parents staying overnight.
Interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston defended the spending, saying that the 25 parents will then train other parents at their schools.
"Those who have participated [in educational conferences] know the value of staying over," added the board's vice chair, Jerrelle Francois, a former city teacher and principal.
LaVerne Sykes, the system's director of parent and community involvement, said parents will participate in events from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. The parents will be selected from the city's Title 1 schools, which serve low-income populations.
Most of the expense, $72,749, will pay for Gaithersburg-based Family Services Agency Inc. to conduct training for three weekends in June and July. Parents will learn about the federal No Child Left Behind Act, state testing in Maryland and skills for organizing school communities. The program is sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education.
The remaining $37,557 will be paid to the hotel to cover the overnight accommodations, meals and conference room rental fees.
The Maryland State Department of Education has contracted with Family Services Agency to provide the same training for parents from around the state, paying for the group to stay overnight at a central location, officials said. No other individual school system has used the service.
Board member George M. VanHook Sr. said that the school system needs to do everything it can to get parents involved in their children's education, and that it routinely spends money for less important reasons. He said he thought parents would take offense at the board's extensive public analysis of the contract, which came on the same night as the board approved a $1.2 billion budget for next school year.
"Debating $100,000 is an insult to them," he said.