South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | August 2, 2022
About 180 Broward school administrators traveled to Naples for a recent three-day retreat at the luxury Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, costing taxpayers an estimated $100,000.
The school district is reimbursing principals and assistant principals $259 per night for two nights at the five-star Ritz-Carlton, the host hotel for the Broward Principals and Assistants Association 2022 Leadership Retreat, district spokesman John Sullivan said. It’s a practice that has happened for seven or eight years, officials said.
Sullivan and an association representative say it was a weekend full of valuable leadership training. Critics see it as a taxpayer-subsidized junket.
“A sun-soaked beach location. Luxury spa treatments inspired by the garden and the sea,” the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort website boasts. “Exquisite dining influenced by the Gulf of Mexico’s bounty. The unique challenge of 36 holes of championship golf. And a sunset that must be experienced to be believed.”
Consider it luxury on a budget: The $259 group rate was about half of the $500 to $600 per night published rate for a summer weekend stay.
“It was cheaper than the Holiday Inn,” insists Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association.
The association is a group that provides advocacy, education and legal assistance to its dues-paying members.
Representatives of the district and association said the weekend had robust professional development and team-building opportunities for attendees.
“Due to the demands of the school year calendar, there are very few opportunities for District and school administrators to come together, in person, for leadership training and professional development,” Sullivan said. “It’s standard practice in many school districts to cover the cost of professional development for their administrators.”
But some question whether the district subsidized a small amount of professional development sandwiched between large amounts of golf, pool time and parties. During a time when the district is trying to persuade voters to approve a tax increase to boost employee salaries, security and mental health, School Board member Sarah Leonardi said the optics are bad.
“We’re telling people we don’t have money for stuff. Then we apparently find money for this,” Leonardi said.
Attendees who were in Naples early Friday, July 22, could start the weekend off with an organized golf outing. Conference registration opened at 3 p.m. with a reception at 6 p.m. and a “mystery masquerade” party from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, according to the conference agenda.
Saturday morning started with breakfast at 8:15 a.m. Nancy Sulla, who has written several education leadership books, spoke at 9 a.m. for about an hour. There were professional development sessions from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to the agenda.
Sulla told the South Florida Sun Sentinel her message focused on such issues as the academic, social and emotional challenges students have faced as a result of the pandemic and how administrators can help those students.
The period from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday was listed on the agenda as free time. An earlier agenda described the afternoon time as a “day at the pool.”
A 6:30 p.m. dinner and party, where the dress code was all white, featured an address by Superintendent Vickie Cartwright. Photos from the event also show Deputy Superintendent Judith Marte in attendance. The evening ended with a 10 p.m. dominoes tournament, according to the agenda.
The only event listed on Sunday was a breakfast buffet from 8:15 a.m. to 11 a.m., but much of that time featured professional development, Maxwell said.
Leonardi said the schedule, which she reviewed, is a stark contrast to Florida School Board Association conferences she has attended, where the agendas are packed from morning until dinner time.
“The idea that we’re paying for people’s hotel rooms when there’s not that much on the agenda is just unacceptable,” she said. “There’s so much scrutiny for other people. Why are we paying for people to stay at a Ritz-Carlton and have masquerade parties?”
Sulla, who led some of the professional development sessions, said she didn’t feel like the weekend skimped on learning.
“I was impressed with how deeply committed Broward principals and assistant principals were to their work,” she said. “I’ve been to conferences where everyone puts up with the program so they can get to the pool. That could not have been farther from the truth here.”
She said she discussed education and leadership strategies with administrators all three days. “It’s sad to hear people think it was a waste,” Sulla said.
Maxwell said the event had a total of seven hours of learning on Saturday and two hours on Sunday.
“The only thing taxpayers paid for were the hotel rooms,” she said. Administrators “didn’t get their mileage reimbursed. We raised all the money for food.”
The administrators’ group secured a number of sponsorships to offset the cost of programming.
Maxwell said the district has paid the full expenses for teachers to attend conferences, not just the lodging.
“Do a Freedom of Information request to see how much [Broward Teachers Union] reps get reimbursed,” she said.
However, BTU President Anna Fusco said they get reimbursed nothing. While some teachers work out agreements with their schools to get conference expenses covered, that has nothing to do with their union, she said.
Fusco said the district doesn’t pay teachers to attend events organized by employee groups, such as the National Education Association conference. Elected BTU officials can get some travel costs defrayed by the union, she said.
Fusco said the training could be held locally. If the administrators want to get away, the retreat should be covered by the association or its members, not taxpayers, especially given the large blocks of time that don’t involve work, she said.
“I belong to a lot of organizations that have done real professional development, where you sit in rooms from 9 to 5 and have homework, and then you get to enjoy yourself after working hours,” Fusco said. “Let’s call this what it was. A principal getaway retreat.”
BTU and Broward Principals and Assistants Association have feuded for years, with BTU members complaining that some principals mistreat teachers while principals complain BTU members show up to schools unannounced and cause disruptions.
The feud escalated during the Naples retreat after administrators say they spotted BTU treasurer Kenny Minchew, wearing a sunhat and sunglasses, at a Ritz-Carlton restaurant snapping photos of administrators and their children.
“So BTU can barely muster a one percent raise for teachers but has no problem sending BTU Executive Board members all the way to Naples using BTU member dues to stalk Principals and AP’s at the annual BPAA professional development retreat,” the administrator group tweeted July 22, including a photo of Minchew on his phone.
The group later tweeted, “Correction: BPAA has learned that Mr. Kenny Minchew, BTU Treasurer, paid his own way to Naples.” Maxwell said the updated information came from Cartwright.
Minchew couldn’t be reached for comment. Fusco said the union was not involved in his decision to visit Naples.
“What he does on his weekend is his business,” Fusco said. “He has family in the area. We work hard all week. People take time off.”
Two School Board members, Patti Good and Nora Rupert, attended the event, but paid their own way, officials said. Rupert said she didn’t know the district paid for administrators to attend.
“The optics aren’t pretty,” she said. “When board members do professional development, we make sure to be cognizant of the budget. However, this is not my meeting. If the district is reimbursing, that’s a superintendent decision, not a School Board decision.”
Leonardi said she asked Superintendent Vickie Cartwright to stop paying for it going forward, but said she was told it’s a School Board decision.
This isn’t the first time a Naples Ritz-Carlton event has raised eyebrows. In 2015, the School Board planned to hold a team-building retreat at another Ritz-Carlton location in the city, but only notified the public through a legal ad in the Miami Herald. After the Sun Sentinel learned of the trip, then-Chairwoman Donna Korn defended it by saying the district got a good rate, and it was better to meet out of town because board members would be less likely to be distracted or leave early.
After a string of criticism, including a scathing Sun Sentinel editorial that quoted many lyrics of the song, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the district canceled the retreat.