The organizers of the Orleans Parish School Board’s two-day retreat in Houston, which starts Thursday, say it’s an opportunity for board members to build relationships. But some people question why they have to travel so far for professional development.

The board, with three new members taking office in January, has had to deal with several large issues very quickly, said Westley Bayas III, New Orleans director of the education advocacy group Stand for Children. The retreat was spurred by conversations between his group and the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.

“I think it was just trying to provide space away from town so board members could have that opportunity to think,” Bayas said.

It’s been a tumultuous few months for the school board, and it hasn’t yet started the process of finding a new, permanent superintendent. In February, board president Ira Thomas proposed to nullify the contracts of the interim superintendent and a deputy superintendent. Though the board decided to nullify the deputy superintendent’s contract, it voted to revise the interim superintendent’s contract. Both moves exposed divisions among the board.

Thomas also temporarily blocked the board from authorizing a financing deal to continue with the rebuilding of Phillis Wheatley school. Many school board observers said the deal was key to getting more tax credits to help rebuild the city’s schools.

The Center for Reform of School Systems, a nonprofit that focuses on school-board training, is located in Houston, Bayas said, which led to the decision to hold the retreat there.

The training will cost $10,000, which will be covered by Stand for Children. Training in New Orleans would have cost the board $2,500 per half-day, plus travel expenses for trainers, said Cathy Mincberg, CEO of the Center for Reform of School Systems.

But taxpayers will pay for the board’s travel. Airfare for six board members (Sarah Usdin isn’t going) on Southwest Airlines costs $1,942, said interim Superintendent Stan Smith. It costs $159 a night to stay at the Omni Hotel where the retreat will be held.

An out-of-town trip isn’t a new thing, according to veteran board member Cynthia Cade. In her eight years on the board, the group has gone on retreats — in Utah and Mississippi — each time it has inducted new members.

The Jefferson Parish School Board, in contrast, hasn’t attended a retreat outside the city in the 14 years that longtime board member Ray St. Pierre has served, he said.

Despite the distance, the retreat is still considered a public meeting. It’s covered by the part of the law that says that any time a quorum of a public body receives information regarding a matter under its control, it’s a public meeting. The state’s open meetings law makes no mention of meeting venues, although it’s harder for constituents to travel to a meeting out of town.

Kwame Smith, a public school teacher who has attended board meetings regularly and lost a bid for a School Board seat last year, said he doesn’t have the time or money to attend the Houston gathering.

“I wish they didn’t have to have it in Houston,” he said. “They could have done it at a hotel here.”

Sandra Wheeler Hester, dubbed “18 Wheeler,” has taken the board to task on issues of public transparency and spending. She too questioned the need for the trip and said she would request spending records for it.

“With a cash-strapped school system, it sounds more like a vacation to me rather than a retreat,” she said.

Still, others had positive things to say about the board’s gathering. Janet Bean, chairwoman of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans’ education committee, said the location isn’t an issue for her group.

“We are actually supportive,” she said. The trip will be a chance for the board to hear from the trainers at the Center for Reform of School Systems and to get to know one another, she said. It may also dissuade them from micromanaging the district.

“I think it was very troubling to think that new market tax credits were held up at the February meeting,” Bean said. “I would consider that micromanaging.”

However, Bean said she was disappointed that Usdin won’t be at the retreat. Usdin has emerged as the most vocal of the first-time board members, challenging the administrators’ contract nullifications and the blocking of the tax credit deal. She and fellow members Woody Koppel and Seth Bloom forced Thomas’ hand by requesting a special board meeting to discuss the tax credit issue after Thomas voted not to add it to the February meeting agenda.

Usdin said she can’t go because she has a family vacation that was planned months ago.

The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance will live-stream the retreat; The Lens will live-blog it. The retreat begins with a dinner presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday. Things get underway at 9 a.m. Friday.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...