Traverse City Record-Eagle

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November 22, 2012

Keeping trip a secret a mistake, chief says

'Looking back, I think we should have done a press release'

TRAVERSE CITY — Local school officials erred when they failed to publicize a planned trip to China as they campaigned for a $100 million bond proposal, the district's superintendent said.

Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Steven Cousins acknowledged officials did not want to "muddy the waters" before the Nov. 6 millage vote with word that he and five other administrators planned a trip to China.

TCAPS officials flew to China the day after local voters resoundingly rejected the district's millage request. The trip — for conferences and meetings with Chinese educational leaders — cost taxpayers an estimated $7,000 and prompted some public criticism.

"We were trying to not muddy the waters with anything, but the presiding reason was (the trip) had been canceled in the past," he said. "Looking back, I think we should have done a press release."

TCAPS officials planned to go on the same trip, an annual event largely funded by China's public Hanban Institute, last year. That trip was canceled.

Two weeks before this year's Nov. 7 departure date it appeared the trip again would fall by the wayside, Cousins said. Meetings involving China's Communist Party clogged Beijing the same week the Hanban Institute planned to host its international delegates in the Chinese capital.

"They realized they had all these people coming into Beijing when Beijing was going to be overrun by its political conference," Cousins said.

The Hanban Institute rerouted educational delegates to Dalian, a major seaport in Liaoning province, for most of the conference, Cousins said.

Cousins, Associate Superintendent Jayne Mohr; West and Central high school principals Joe Tibaldi and Rick Vandermolen; Katie Bonne, International School at Bertha Vos director; and district Communications Director Alison Arnold represented TCAPS on the trip.

TCAPS Board of Education did not have to approve funding for the trip because the district used federal money set aside for professional development.

Cousins said board members learned of the trip during an Aug. 13 meeting. Curriculum Committee Chair Julie Puckett informed other board members the Hanban Institute, which paid for the delegates' international airfare, lodging, meals and travel in China, had granted TCAPS four spots on the delegation.

Two more conference seats were pending, and when Hanban Institute granted those, district officials decided they couldn't pass up sending additional representatives to China for eight days for about $2,400 more.

Hanban originally required Cousins, Mohr and the principals to attend, Cousins said. The two extra spots went to Bonne, thanks to Bertha Vos' curricular focus on Mandarin and Chinese culture, and Arnold because she served as the District's main contact person with Hanban officials.

Cousins said the six-member delegation allowed the district to accomplish more than if four officials attended.

"In the long run this is an investment with low risk ... that definitely pays out with opportunities for our students," Cousins said.

Board President Kelly Hall agreed the China trip should not have come as a surprise to district taxpayers.

"I wish it had been publicized more," Hall said. "One of our goals is to prepare our students to be competent globally. China is the biggest economic power other than the (U.S). We think this is a great opportunity for our students and our staff."

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