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Hillsborough Schools implements travel ban, but traveling board member says she won't slow down

Susan Valdes racks up $44K in travel since 2012
Posted: 6:43 PM, Oct 20, 2016
Updated: 2016-10-20 22:43:43Z

Cutbacks on bus service and school maintenance and open teaching positions left open…those are some of the effects the Hillsborough County Schools'  budget crunch will have on your kids.

Travel for employees also banned, but that doesn't include school board members, and the board member who travels the most says she has no plans to stop.

“It's desperate and it's been desperate for some time,” said Pat Hall, who represents the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters, describing the budget crunch in Hillsborough County Schools.

“When we don't have air conditioners in classrooms and she's been able to do whatever,” she said, talking about school board member Susan Valdes. 

“Susan has taken advantage of her position to travel, and it's gone on for 12 years,” Hall said.

Since 2012, Valdes has flown tens-of-thousands of miles and spent months in pricey hotels on your dime.

An analysis of her travel expenses shows she took about 40 trips during her latest term, costing an average of more than $1,000 per trip.  

“We need to have to make changes in how we spend money,” Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins said in a video released earlier this month by the district, describing cost-cutting measures by Hillsborough County Schools.

Among those is an employee out-of-county travel ban.  

Valdes refused multiple requests for a sit-down interview, but we caught up with her at a community event.

We asked her about the $44,637 records show she spent on travel from July of 2012 through April of this year.

“The thing is, I am an active board member and by statute, it's also…there's not a requirement, but it's also something I can do,” she said.

Valdes can travel all she wants on the district, since she's not considered an employee.

There's no policy restricting board member's travel.

Last year, Valdes' out-of-town travel costs were more than the other six members' combined.

She says her trips are necessary, since she is on committees for the National School Board Association, the Florida School Board Association, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the Council of Urban Boards of Education.

When asked whether she needed to sit on so many boards, Valdes said she did, stating “Because it's the right thing to do on behalf of our students.”

Among expenses Valdes charged to the district....nine days of hotel, taxi and airport parking expenses for a three day Washington, DC conference, and a five day trip to rapper Pitbull's SLAM Academy Charter School in Miami.

“The fact that taxpayers paid $1,100 or more for her to spend five days looking at one charter school, which typically would be a one hour or two to visit, doesn't make sense to me,” said Hall.

Valdes said she made more than one stop on that trip and others.

“While I was there I did visit schools. That's why I'm able to bring things back,” said Valdes.

Valdes billed the district for local travel too, including mileage to a Tampa Bay Bucs game at Raymond James Stadium and mileage and parking for a concert at Amalie arena.

When asked whether taxpayers should pay for her to park to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Valdes replied, “Yes. It’s something that I'm invited to attend as an elected official and those are part of the costs.”

Records show Valdes canceled plans to attend a Racial Equity Conference at a posh Santa Fe Spa sponsored by a company that has a contract with Hillsborough County Schools.

“It was a little bit too expensive,” she said.

Valdes says she has cut back on other trips as well.

“There's one organization we belong to which is the Council of Great City Schools. I barely go to that one, because i just don't see the value of that particular organization,” Valdes said.

But records show Valdes did go to two great city schools' conferences in California and New Mexico since 2013, costing the district $3,800.

“The district can't scold her, so to speak, because the school board is in charge of the superintendent,” said Hall.

“I won't slow down on travel that is not productive to what we're doing here,” Valdes said.

Board members don't have to submit reports about what they learned from their travels, but Valdes says she would support a policy to require that in the future.

She says she currently shares information she learns from her travels with her colleagues during school board meetings and workshops.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at Adam@abcactionnews.com .