On Wednesday, Kansas State Board of Education Member Connie Morris received approval for two state-funded trips, including a visit to Washington, D.C., from Dec. 16-23, less that two weeks before she is scheduled to leave office. The stated purpose of her trip isn't even to attend any sort of organized conference but to have multiple meetings with immigration and education organizations and other elected officials.
What Morris plans to do with whatever information she gleans from these meetings is a mystery. The St. Francis Republican was defeated in her party's primary for her school board seat and has said she doesn't plan a write-in campaign, so her trip clearly isn't intended to benefit the state. That leaves only a couple of possibilities, both of which are unfair to Kansas taxpayers.
One possibility is that Morris is using the state's dollars to pursue her personal agenda related to immigration and education issues. Morris made news early in her term with her announcement that the state shouldn't pay to educate the children of illegal immigrants in the state.
The other possibility is that Morris simply wants to take a couple of trips on the taxpayers' dime. In addition to the Washington trip, she has scheduled an Oct. 13-14 trip to Bloomington, Minn., to attend a conference of a group called EdWatch, Education For A FREE Nation. The topics to be discussed at that meeting also seem right up Morris' ideological alley. They include how international baccalaureate undermines American citizenship and how mental health screening affects gun ownership rights.
This isn't the first time Morris' travel has raised eyebrows in the state. In 2005, she was criticized for charging taxpayers for six nights in a Miami resort hotel at a cost of $339 per night while attending an education conference. She was unable to get a less expensive hotel room, she said, because she registered after the deadline.
Morris subsequently repaid the state for most of her expenses, but the incident spurred some board members to call for a review of the board's travel policy. The policy was reviewed by a committee chaired by Board Member Ken Willard, another member of the board's conservative majority, and declared just fine. Willard said last week that Morris' latest travel plans are "within the bounds of policy as long as they are education-related."
Unfortunately, Morris' travel received the unanimous approval of the board. Two board members who were critical of her plans said they felt their hands were tied by the lax board policy that basically leaves travel up to the discretion of each individual member. Nonetheless, if board members disapproved of Morris' travel, they should have the courage to vote against approving it. They did, however, promise to pursue another review of the board's travel policies after new board members take office in January.
The travel policy is just one item on what undoubtedly will be a full agenda for the new board, which is expected to shift into the hands of a moderate majority of at least six members. The closing antics of Morris should be a reminder of the need to elect state board members who will put personal agendas aside and work in a professional manner on behalf of Kansas youngsters.