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Extra hotel rooms, rental cars, and a $22,000 travel bill. What's going on with school leader spending?

Posted at 3:24 PM, May 21, 2024

PETERSBURG, Va. -- Former Petersburg Schools Superintendent Dr. Tamara Sterling charged taxpayers more than $22,000 while traveling to conferences during her 15 months on the job, according to records obtained by CBS 6 through a public records request.

The $22,000 bill was more than double what the Henrico County superintendent spent, 14 times what the Hopewell superintendent spent, and 43 times what the Chesterfield superintendent spent on travel during that same time frame.

At three of the conferences, Sterling booked more than one room for herself.

At two conferences, even if she flew in the day before the conference and flew out the day after, she stayed three additional nights on the public’s dime.

Petersburg parent David Muller had trouble containing his dismay when CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit showed him Sterling’s travel expenses.

“Petersburg doesn't have that kind of money to spend on things like this,” Muller said. “You sure shouldn't be spending $22,000 field-tripping around the country.”

Petersburg Travel
David Muller talks with Melissa Hipolit about school spending in Petersburg

Muller’s son is in the 4th grade at Petersburg’s Walnut Hill Elementary School, and he said money is extremely tight in the high-poverty school district.

“Some of these teachers are taking their paycheck money and spending it on school supplies for the kids. Other teachers are asking for help,” Muller said.

Sterling abruptly resigned as Superintendent in late March, which was more than two years before her contract was set to end.

Earlier that month, the school system announced that she was on a leave of absence, but never explained why.

“I thought she was a really nice thorough woman, I was really surprised,” Muller said about Sterling’s abrupt resignation.

A substitute teacher was found guilty of assaulting Muller’s son at Walnut Hill in January, and after a meeting with Sterling about what happened, Muller said he was waiting on a follow-up phone call from her, but said that never happened.

“I stopped down at the school board where they told me she was in California, and she would be back,” Muller said. “They told me it was at a conference.”

It was one of five out-of-state conferences Sterling attended between February 2023 and February 2024, according to information CBS 6 obtained through a public records request.

Sterling started with The School Superintendents Association’s National Conference on Education in San Antonio, Texas in February 2023.

The actual conference was February 16 - 18, but records show the school division paid $6,309.02 for Sterling to book two rooms and stay in San Antonio for an entire week from February 12 -19.

Even if Sterling flew into the conference the day before and flew out the day after, taxpayers still paid for her to stay in San Antonio for three additional nights.

Hanover and Henrico’s school superintendents also went to this conference.

Each only stayed for four nights, with the former spending $988.68 to attend the conference, and the latter spending $2,224.09.

Petersburg Travel

Then in late June 2023, Sterling went to the Urban Superintendents Collaborative for Improved Student Outcomes at the Green Valley Ranch Resort Spa and Casino in Henderson, Nevada.

The conference was from June 28 - 30, but Sterling stayed from June 27 - July 2.

Even if Sterling flew into the conference the day before and flew out the day after, taxpayers still paid for her to stay in Nevada for one additional night.

The trip cost taxpayers $2,713.

A few weeks later, Sterling traveled to Orlando, Florida for the SREB Making Schools Work Conference.

The actual conference was July 18 - 21, but she stayed July 17 - 23.

Records show she spent $3,866 on two separate rooms at the hotel for herself, registration, and a rental car on which she put 335 miles.

Sterling’s assistant for special projects also attended this conference and rented a separate car, which she drove 477 miles in during her Orlando stay.

She next flew to New Orleans for the NABSE Conference where she spent $2,526.

Watch State Sen. Lashrecse Aird on superintendent spending

State Sen. Lashrecse Aird on superintendent spending

Finally, she traveled to The School Superintendents Association’s National Conference on Education in San Diego.

The actual conference was February 15 - 17, 2024, but taxpayers paid for her to spend seven nights there.

Records show she spent $4,816 in San Diego where she booked two rooms at the conference hotel from February 13 - 16, even though she was the only attendee.

She booked another room at the conference hotel for February 16 - 18, in addition to a room at the US Grant Luxury Hotel, which she booked for February 11 - 13 and February 16 - 18.

Henrico and Chesterfield’s superintendents also went to this conference.

They only stayed for two and three nights.

Both also were speakers at the conference.

The School Superintendents Association reimburses speakers for some travel expenses related to the conference for speakers.

Henrico’s Superintendent spent $1,171.20 to attend the San Diego conference, and Chesterfield’s spent $514.34.

In total, Sterling charged the Petersburg school division $22,267.59 for her travel.

“Do you think this maybe deserves a closer look?” CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit asked Muller.

“Yes yes I definitely do,” Muller responded.  “If money is that tight and we're spending over $20,000 on field trips for the school superintendent, just doesn't seem to make sense to me.”

For comparison, we requested Superintendents’ travel expenses in other area school divisions during the same time period, many of which are much larger than Petersburg, and nobody even came close to Sterling’s total.

  • In Hanover, the Superintendent spent $7,507.
  • In Henrico, the Superintendent spent $8,974.
  • In Chesterfield, the Superintendent spent $514.34.
  • In Hopewell, the Superintendent spent $1,525.

We requested the travel expenses for Richmond’s Superintendent, but the FOIA officer said the “request will require further extension as the staff person responsible for this request has and will be out of the office for the next few weeks.”
We showed our findings to State Senator Lashrecse Aird, who represents Petersburg in the Virginia General Assembly.

“There just really is no rationale that can be used to explain the excess that's appearing in the records that you found,” Sen. Aird (D - 13th District) said.

“What do you think about getting two rooms at a conference for yourself?” Hipolit asked Aird.

“Could not explain it if I tried," Aird replied.

Petersburg Travel
State Sen. Lashrecse Aird

Like, Muller, she wants answers about what led to Sterling’s sudden departure, and why Sterling was allowed to spend so much money on out-of-state travel.

“Do you think it's fair to book a whole week at the site when the conference is only a couple of days?” Hipolit asked.

“Not on the public's dime,” Aird responded. “When you're talking about adding on additional days or additional time spent, that should not be at the public's expense, certainly not in a school division like the City of Petersburg where resources are limited for sure.”

Travel authorization forms show School Board Chair Kenneth Pritchett approved Sterling’s travel, although for the San Antonio trip, she did not tell Pritchett in the form all the dates she would be staying there, and she underestimated the cost of the trip.

We have tried to reach out to Pritchett by phone and by email to ask him about Sterling’s trips, but he has not responded.

Petersburg Schools confirmed that Sterling did not have a travel budget, and they do not have a policy specific to travel.

“The school board chairman will have to have increased scrutiny when approving these requests and these expenditures unfortunately because of what we're seeing today,” Aird said. “The state does have an interest in seeing the school division flourish, but from a financial standpoint this certainly can't go on and expect the support of the state.”

“I think the school board needs to seriously look into this,” Muller said. “The parents in Petersburg care about their kids. We want the best for them. They need to look into it. It's about the kids, not blowing money.”

We reached out to Dr. Sterling by phone and email to try to ask her about her travel expenses, but we have not heard back.

Sen. Aird said she is now working with the Virginia Department of Education to ensure greater enforcement and oversight of Petersburg schools so something like this does not happen again.

Every day CBS 6 is Giving You A Voice. Share your voice with the CBS 6 Newsroomvia email hereor click here to submit a tip. You can also leave a message by calling 804-254-3672. Be sure to leave your name, phone number and detailed description of your story idea.

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