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Calgary Board of Education's top official under fire after 'comical' travel, electronic bills racked up

Calgary's top public school official is facing criticism from a taxpayer watchdog group after thousands were spent to attend an international conference and work electronically abroad.

Calgary Board of Education Chief Supt. Naomi Johnson and office director Ronna Mosher spent nearly $10,000 to attend the International Conference on Thinking in Wellington, New Zealand, in January.

Johnson also logged nearly $2,000 in fees to operate a cellphone and tablet computer over the first two months of 2013, according to expense documents released by the CBE Tuesday.

A description of the Wellington conference on its website describes it as a "Fascinating 5-day conference to expand global thinking around the themes of "future survival," "personal futures" and "future society."

The description goes on to state an important aim of the event "Was to acknowledge and value the culturally diverse range of concepts about, and approaches to, thinking and learning."

But Derek Fildebrandt, with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who had already reviewed the expenses when reached Wednesday, isn't buying that the value of Johnson and Mosher attending.

He deemed the expenses accrued "comical" and noted they come at a time when all public sectors are belt-tightening. The CBE has already announced plans to cut high school per-student funding by 11 per cent after original promises of two per cent increases to student base grants fell through in the March provincial budget.

"This is money that's not going towards students because it was allocated towards a junket," Fildebrandt said. "This looks like a taxpayer-funded vacation."

On Wednesday, in response to requests for comment on the expense, the CBE provided a September submission from Johnson detailing her rationale for attending the conference.

The proposal was approved by trustee chair Pat Cochrane, Deputy Chief Supt. David Stephenson and a risk management official.

"This conference links directly to our core purpose of student learning," Johnson wrote. "The CBE's mission is being realize through a focus on personalizing learning for each student, every day, no exceptions."

Johnson also met with members of a group called CORE Education as well Maori leaders and members of the New Zealand Ministry of Education, CBE officials said Wednesday.

Johnson has also pledged to pay back a portion of a $1,131.95 monthly service bill for her tablet computer that spokesperson Megan Geyer said was racked up while abroad.

"Her tablet computer is what she used to stay connected to our system, and she worked from it," Geyer said, before chalking up the bill to an "oversight."

Another item in Johnson's expenses indicates she generated $288.04 in costs on her monthly bill for a cellphone device that month as well.

The CBE relies on Bell Mobility for its wireless needs. A page on the organization's website indicates it charges $2 per minute spent talking on the phone while abroad in New Zealand as well as $0.75 per text message sent and $8 per megabyte of data downloaded.

Johnson was not available for an interview Wednesday afternoon and a call to Cochrane's cellphone was not immediately returned.

Frank Bruseker, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association local, said he does see value in officials attending conferences abroad; however, he added, "The question always is are we getting value for the money."

When asked how her trip would benefit others, Johnson wrote in her proposal, "The knowledge, experience and wisdom that I gain will flow into my day-to-day work as chief superintendent of the organization. Specifically, I will seek to develop my understanding of the leadership actions required to engage communities in professional learning and curriculum renewal that is responsive to unique community needs while still promoting the democratic ideal."

Costs for Chief Superintendent Naomi Johnson and office director Ronna Mosher to attend a New Zealand conference

  • $5,035.40 in airfare
  • $2,146.35 in conference fees
  • $2,211.72 in accommodation
  • $143.82 in excess baggage fees
  • $118.48 in taxi fares
  • $232.11 in meal expenses

Total cost: $9,887.88

Naomi Johnson's electronic bills for January and February

  • Cellphone: $528.21
  • Tablet: $1,445.53

Total cost: $1,973.74

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