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Kent school board votes against superintendent's request for out-of-state travel

Ashley Gross
The Kent school board

Kent School District's superintendent has faced public criticism for receiving thousands of dollars in stipends to participate in education-technology conferences. Now, the school board has voted against allowing him to take part in one in February.

Superintendent Calvin Watts has participated in five conferences to give feedback on technology products since February 2016, all hosted by a company called Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI). Conference locations included Tucson, New Orleans and Amelia Island, Florida, according to a list provided by the district.

Each time, Watts received honoraria of about $2,000 from ERDI, along with airfare, hotel and food costs.

Wednesday was the first time the board voted in a public meeting about the superintendent's participation in out-of-state conferences such as ERDI, which will host a gathering in Newport Beach, California, in February.

In response to a public records request from KNKX, the district provided one travel authorization approval form signed in May 2016 by Karen DeBruler, a school board director. For the other conferences, the board granted verbal approvals, district officials said.

But earlier this year, parents began criticizing Watts’ participation in ERDI events, saying they raise potential conflicts of interest because he’s received money for meeting with companies that would like to do business with the school district. The school board added language to his contract this past summer spelling out when he’s allowed to do outside consulting work. 

Watts has defended his participation in ERDI, saying it does not pose a conflict of interest and that it gives him insight into products that could help Kent schools. Other superintendents from school districts in the Puget Sound region have taken part in ERDI events, including Susan Enfield of Highline and Carla Santorno of Tacoma.

The Kent School Board also voted against Watts’ participation in a conference in Los Angeles hosted by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. That would have cost the district more than $1,800 for registration, hotel and airfare costs.

Board President Maya Vengadasalam said board directors have taken steps to reduce spending.

“We haven’t been going to our conferences,” Vengadasalam said. “And I don’t like the fact that we’re reinstating (the) travel budget when in three years from now, we’re going to be in this situation again. So we still need to be austere.”

The board did vote to approve Watts’ travel to a session hosted by the Broad Academy in Denver from Jan. 28 – Feb. 1. The district won’t pay the cost of that travel.

The Broad Academy is funded by entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad, and offers professional development to school district administrators. Some parents have criticized Watts’ affiliation with the Broad Academy, saying it’s a group that promotes charter schools over traditional public schools. Watts told the school board he’s gaining valuable professional development from participating in the Broad Academy.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.