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Fresno Trustee Thomas Leads the Pack in Taxpayer Funded Travel to Tourist Destinations
gvw_edward_smith
By Edward Smith
Published 2 weeks ago on
May 31, 2024

Fresno Unified Trustee Keshia Thomas' travel expenses over three years made up about 33% of all travel costs among board members. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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Fresno Unified School Board members make about $20,000 annually. But, as part of their duties, they attend conferences, some of them in tourist destinations such as Napa, New Orleans, and Miami.

Not all conferences are the same, and neither are the costs that trustees charge taxpayers.

For example, district records requested by GV Wire show that Edison High region trustee Keshia Thomas billed $55,308 in travel costs over the past three years. That’s nearly 33% of the entire board’s travel expenses for the period.

Trustee Veva Islas, representing McLane High School, said there are many reasons why board members attend conferences.

“In general, it should be for the purposes of learning something that can be applied to better the district and serve our students,” Islas said.

Only Islas and Roosevelt High region trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas returned requests to comment for this story.

In three years, trustees accumulated $168,003 in expenses for trips and conferences.

Trips include a $5,400 tab for two days in Sacramento. A $3,995 trip to discuss water policy for a trustee (Jonasson Rosas) employed by Westlands Water District.

And, five trustees attended a conference at Harvard Business School costing taxpayers more than $30,000.

Pie charts show the breakdown for total travel expenses among Fresno Unified trustees for the past three years. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

Thomas’ 2021-22 Travel Costs 43% of Board Total

The district budgets $103,000 for board travel, said Nikki Henry, chief communications officer with Fresno Unified.

Seminars and conferences present opportunities for continued learning, she said.

Trustees often attend events hosted by organizations to which the district belongs, such as the California School Board Association and the Council of Great City Schools. Trustees may belong to other groups that require travel. Beyond that, they may request attending other events.

In the 2021-22 school year, Thomas’ $17,689 in travel expenses for 10 trips was nearly 43% of the board’s total travel spending.

Trustees Claudia Cazares, Jonasson-Rosas, and Terry Slatic each expensed travel to one conference, all of them to the California School Boards Association Annual Conference in San Diego. Slatic also traveled to Sacramento to meet with then-Assemblymember Kevin Kiley.

Trustee Valerie Davis attended six events and Islas three — one of them virtual. Those five trustees cumulatively spent $23,553 in taxpayer money.

Thomas attended nine conferences and expensed one trip to Sacramento to speak about a bill.

Thomas went to week-long conferences in New Orleans and Philadelphia. Trips to Washington D.C., Palm Springs, and two trips to San Diego lasted several days each, as did two trips to Sacramento.

Thomas’ Trips More Expensive

Thomas also racked up higher expenses while on the same trips as other trustees. For example, Thomas and Davis attended the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington D.C. in March 2022. While Davis’ trip cost taxpayers $2,172, Thomas expensed $3,305.

Both also traveled to the California Association of Black School Educators in San Diego. Davis billed the district $915, nearly half of Thomas’ $1,791.

Nearly all trustees attended the California School Boards Association Annual Conference in December 2021. Thomas’ expenses for that trip totaled $2,882. Slatic’s trip was the most expensive at $3,045. Islas spent the least, $2,209.

The next year, the cost for the same event increased by more than $1,000 for Thomas. Her $3,994 trip to San Diego was five times the $790 each billed by Islas and Jonasson Rosas. Davis turned in receipts for $1,042 spent — about a fourth of what Thomas spent. In his last year on the board, Slatic also attended the conference, billing $770 to the district.

Fresno High region Trustee Andy Levine and Bullard High region trustee Susan Wittrup joined the board that year. Levine charged $3,246 for the trip while Wittrup had $4,290 in expenses.

From left: Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Veva Islas, Valerie Davis, Susan Wittrup, Keshia Thomas, Andy Levine, Claudia Cazares (Fresno Unified School District)

Thomas’ Travel Costs Surpass Every Trustee Every Year

In 2022-23, Thomas’ trips to Napa, San Diego, Miami, Orlando, Florida, Sacramento, and San Luis Obispo cost the district $15,069.

Her travel costs made up a third of the board’s expenses; the other trustees had $32,108 in expenses. Davis was the trustee with the next highest bill, but her five trips only cost the district $5,926.

Thomas’ travel costs for the 2023-24 school year were the most expensive of the three years examined by GV Wire.

She expensed $22,550 for seven events. The destinations: Napa, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and three trips to Sacramento.

Test results show disparities in reading and writing among students of different ethnicities. (EdSource)

What Other Trips Are Trustees Taking?

Trustees’ cumulative travel expenses in 2023-24 made up nearly the sum of the previous two years — even as alarms were being raised by Gov. Gavin Newsom about the state budget deficit and cuts to public school funding.

The $79,585 in travel costs this school year far surpass the $47,177 in 2022-23 and $41,241 in 2021-22.

In March, Thomas took part in the California School Board Association’s equity training, costing taxpayers $5,402 for two days. Earlier this month, Thomas attended another session of the two-day training conference for $856.

Five of the seven trustees attended a three-day conference at Harvard Business School in July 2023. The total bill to taxpayers? $30,884.

Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Project focuses on developing “leadership skills and growth, relationships among board members and with the administration and community, managing conflict, building capacity to focus on district improvement, and addressing inequities.”

Jonasson Rosas and Cazares did not attend.

Jonasson Rosas, who works for Westlands Water District, attended a 2023 conference in three different California locations about water policy that cost taxpayers a total of $3,995. The same conference in 2022 — this time a single session — cost $752.

She told GV Wire she was invited to attend the conference by the group that put it on: Water Education for Latino Leaders.

Another $1,922 Washington D.C. trip by Jonasson Rosas in 2022 taught leadership skills by analyzing the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the three years examined by GV Wire, Cazares and Jonasson Rosas expensed the least — 5.48% and 6.93% of all travel costs, respectively.

FUSD Struggling to Help Students Read and Write

Fresno Unified’s Black and Latino students especially struggle to test at grade level for reading and writing. Only 20% of Black students test at grade level for reading and writing while only about 10% test at grade level for math. An overwhelming majority of Latino students at Fresno Unified also do not test well in reading or math.

Many conferences trustees attended by trustees were geared toward equity training, especially for students of color. Others teach other necessary skills.

The California Association of Black School Educators attended by Thomas provided strategies for overcoming learning gaps. Islas took part in a virtual conference put on by the California School Boards Association that focused on school finance.

Questions about policy implementations resulting from the conferences attended by trustees were not answered by Fresno Unified officials.

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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