Georgia schools chief takes to the skies

The state Department of Natural Resources has helicopters used for a variety of services, including transport of the state school superintendent. (DNR photo)

Georgia’s school superintendent has to travel across the state as part of his job, but unlike many commuters he gets to soar above the gridlock.

Last year, Superintendent Richard Woods would have had to drive about 4,000 miles to reach the schools and other destinations he visited in Savannah, Augusta, Tifton and other distant places, according to records of his travel. But he didn’t have to drive on every trip because as superintendent he has access to a state helicopter service, which he used more than any other state official. The flights cost taxpayers $17,000 in 2015.

When people hear about it – regular people who grind through Atlanta traffic – the road rage surfaces.

“When I’ve got a business meeting in town, I’ve got to sit on (Georgia) 400,” said Lauren Simon, a Forsyth County resident. She noticed a Facebook post about Woods landing in a helicopter at Johns Creek Elementary School in January, and complained about it. “Why are we paying for it when our schools are a shambles,” she said.

After hearing from Simon, the AJC used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain flight logs from the Department of Natural Resources, the agency offering the flights. Several state agencies use the helicopter service, which costs $450 an hour. Only one used it more than Woods’ Department of Education, but no individual at that other agency — the Department of Economic Development — flew as often as Woods. Those trips were split among 14 economic development staffers and their guests. The commissioner, Chris Carr, took one flight of less than an hour.

Those logs say that last year the newly-elected superintendent flew for 38 hours, including side trips for fuel.

State Superintendent Richard Woods has been in office since January 2015. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

State Superintendent Richard Woods has been in office since January 2015.
KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Education department spokesman Matt Cardoza was often among the passengers. He said Woods flew to save time, and sometimes time is money. For instance, flying to Savannah and back, as Woods did in November, took under four hours, a trip that would have taken more than seven hours in good traffic. It cost nearly $1,500 more than driving would have under the state mileage reimbursement rate at that time, but, noted Cardoza, a ground trip might have necessitated a hotel stay and more meals on state expense accounts.

And there were occasions, like that trip in January that included Johns Creek Elementary, that required Woods to crisscross the state before lunch. Rosemont Elementary in LaGrange, Alexander Magnet in Macon and Johns Creek Elementary in Suwanee had won National Blue Ribbon School status, so he recognized them in person. He also was scheduled to be back at his Atlanta office for an afternoon meeting and a couple media interviews, according to his calendar.

In September, Woods visited seven Georgia schools south of Atlanta — in Tifton, Sylvester, Moultrie, Sparks, Nashville, Ocilla and Ashburn between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., stopping at Perry to refuel on the return to Atlanta. Flight time: 5.7 hours, for $2,565.  By car, he would have covered 500 miles over eight hours, at a cost of less than $300 under the state mileage reimbursement rate then of 57.5 cents per mile.

Cardoza said Woods keeps his ear to the ground, meeting with constituents daily, and has a “very busy” schedule. “Because of this, he has to use alternative means of travel on occasion, in order to be present at multiple schools and fulfill meeting obligations in the office.” Cardoza was spokesman for Woods’ predecessors John Barge and Kathy Cox and said both of them also used the helicopter service.

(The Georgia State Patrol offers another helicopter service. The AJC has requested those flight logs.)

Cardoza said Woods has to travel, noting the itinerant role of the superintendent under state law. A code section from the early 1900s (20-2-35) says it’s the superintendent’s duty “to visit, as often as possible” Georgia’s many counties to ensure state education law is being followed, to inspect operations, to give speeches and to do “such other acts as he may deem in the interest of public education.”

And $17,055 for flying isn’t so much in the big scheme of things. The state budgeted $8.5 billion on education this year, funneling it through DoE to the school districts. The agency got $4 million of that for its own staffing, travel and other expenses, and budgeted $95,000 for travel.

Had Woods driven instead of flown last year, the transportation would have cost about $2,200, saving about $15,000 — nearly half what a starting teacher is paid on the state salary scale.

And car travel might not have taken much longer in some cases.

Woods made several trips to destinations that weren’t particularly far by road, for instance, flying to Athens and back for a superintendents’ conference on the morning of Oct. 15. The round trip by air saved about 40 minutes over driving in regular traffic, according to Google maps (though traffic jams might have changed the calculation). Flying cost nearly $700 more than driving would have, but the time saved was important to Woods. His calendar for that day had him at the conference until 10:30 a.m. then rushing back to the Capitol for a teachers advisory council meeting that had started at 10 a.m.

Cardoza said he’s careful about Woods’ helicopter use, and “paranoid” enough about appearances to cancel some flights and put the boss on the road when his schedule permits.  Woods has driven as far as Savannah, and he’s hopped off a helicopter from south Georgia to the Capitol to drive the rest of the way to a school in Roswell.

As of March, Woods had visited 122 schools in 79 school districts. That means he has a lot of driving — and probably flying — ahead of him: There are 180 school districts in Georgia. In January, the most recent of the flight logs obtained, he flew 5.7 hours, for a bill of $2,565.

Edmund Trafford, a taxpayer in Johns Creek, said he’s not all that bothered by the use of helicopters given the superintendent’s legal mandate to travel around the state, but said he’d like to see them used sparingly. Teleconferencing tools that didn’t exist when the law was crafted could reduce the need to zip back to the office for meetings after visits around the state,” he said, adding that trips of a hundred miles or less ought to be done by car whenever possible.

“He can have a luxurious car,” Trafford said, “but why is he exempt or immune from the traffic that I have to endure?”

Reader Comments 0

34 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I'm assuming the $450 per hour is for actual flight time only and the charge is for trip and not per passenger.  In that case, if you had two or three people flying to and from Savannah for a four hour meeting would probably eliminate a number of hotel rooms and meals and would be a break even proposition.  The trip where he visited seven schools in 6.5 hours, but had 5.7 hours of flight time doesn't make sense to me.  How much meaningful interaction could he have had at each school?  Not very much IMHO.  Flying somewhere for a five minute speech and photo op is not a prudent expenditure of taxpayer funds.

Aircraft usage is an area that is ripe for abuse.  Some people get an inflated sense of self worth when they can hop a plane or helicopter and be met by a car and driver.  Gives them a rock star mentality.

And God knows, nobody in Georgia politics is a rock star...


Oh, and I should add a note about perceptions.  How does it look to the teacher who hasn't had a raise in several years and who buys classroom supplies from personal funds to see the state super show up in a helicopter for a five minute photo op?

Don't you worry about that lil lady.  Just go back to your room and learn them young'uns some English.

William1952
William1952

I kid you not, and I know firsthand, Woods travels so much because that's all he knows how to do. It's a dang shame for the citizens of this state, especially our children.

jerryeads
jerryeads

Opus, when I worked downtown (now five years ago) there was a state car pool that was handed over to one of the rental agencies several years before I left. We were encouraged to use it when it was cheaper than driving our own. Don't know about a dedicated state car. 

Fifteen years ago, not long after I moved down here, agency heads also had access to state fixed wing aircraft. They had jets, but were phasing them out as too expensive. The plane I got to ride in with an agency head a few times was a King Air. A LOT faster than a chopper for heading to the far reaches of the state. Apparently that option is now gone.

One advantage for an agency head flying - or being driven, for that matter - is that they can work while traveling. THAT opportunity may be worth a fair amount. I don't know about Woods, but most of those folks actually don't need to be tying up their time by staring down a road. We're assuming Woods was staring out at the cows when in the chopper; my guess is that's unlikely.

Opus
Opus

@jerryeads When I retired from state government in '04 (NOT DoE) Department heads and Division heads had cars which were assigned to them 24-7. The remaining 8000 peons had to do with cars from the interagency motor pool.  I'm having trouble mustering the energy to dig into the Departmental budget, especially since his car might be well-hidden.

Opus
Opus

I'd like to know if he is also provided with a state car, or is reimbursed for mileage in his personal vehicle.

Lunaville
Lunaville

Sometimes I can be quite fiscally conservative, but I find I don't have a problem with a state employee using a helicopter to travel to multiple distant locations in a single day. Especially if it lets Woods pop into schools unannounced and unanticipated, I can see real value in preventing local schools from making adjustments for his benefit preventing him from seeing how the school is really and normally operated.

HIbought theRefs
HIbought theRefs

Planning is important - if he's zipping down to South Georgia, arrange meetings with several school districts. And if some meeting back in Atlanta is unavoidable and can't be rescheduled, pretty sure "GoToMeeting" or other videoconference tools can be used so he can do a full day of meetings in South Georgia and justify being in a car - or at least, making the most of the helicopter trip. 

I'd also like to know if these were substantive meetings with local school district leadership, or merely photo-ops and brief remarks, such as the visit to schools that won an award.  National Awards deserve an in person visit. But if he's going to take a trip just to stand in a grip-and-grin photo, that's inexcusable.  

Lunaville
Lunaville

@AWA1 You make excellent, thoughtful points to be considered.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

More data from the "small government" and "low taxes" people.

My2SenseWorth
My2SenseWorth

Give it a rest. $17,000 is reasonable for the State Superintendent. They guy is busting it to get around to schools in person. Good for him. Good for kids to see him. The guy makes less than most local superintendents. NOBODY is lining up for the job, and fewer and fewer want to battle the politics and ATLANTA (traffic, housing, parking) to work for the DOE. Thank you Mr. Woods

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@My2SenseWorth I'm thinking if the difference between flying and driving came out of his pay, he would find it much more prudent to drive, and his schedule would be adjusted accordingly.

Astropig
Astropig

@My2SenseWorth


Couldn't agree more.This is just a hit piece because Woods won the job over the AJC's preferred candidate and hasn't feuded with the governor.If he had to travel around by car,we'd hear how he "never visits the schools in person",how he "stays in his ivory tower in Atlanta" or something else inane.Woods has done a good job and since I pay taxes to support his official functions,I don't mind a bit.

Lunaville
Lunaville

@Astropig @My2SenseWorth Thank you for sharing. I did not realize the AJC had backed another candidate for the position. That knowledge does create another lense through which to view the story.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Lunaville @Astropig @My2SenseWorth The AJC did not endorse anyone in the school chief's race anywhere in the newspaper. And each school chief candidate was invited to write a piece about their platforms for this blog and both did so. Here is what Woods wrote:  (You can google state school board race and Richard Woods and AJC Get Schooled to see everything that ran.)


http://www.ajc.com/weblogs/get-schooled/2014/jul/11/gop-candidate-state-school-chief-richard-woods/

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Lunaville @Astropig @My2SenseWorth By the way, I get tired of the nonsense -- resurrected with the return of Astro to the blog -- that the AJC doesn't pursue investigations against Democrats. I would bet Burrell Ellis, Bill Campbell and several ex members of the Fulton commission and the Clayton commission would disagree. (And some former south Georgia legislators who were subjects of long stories.) And if you follow Atlanta news, you know the current Atlanta mayor has not been happy with AJC coverage of several recent issues. The AJC investigative team has spent a lot of time reporting on DeKalb politicians, most of whom are Dems. 

Astropig
Astropig

@Lunaville @Astropig @My2SenseWorth


We didn't find out from the AJC that Beverly Hall had a $100K driver (and Atlanta cop) until we read in in The New York Times.


(NYT 9/11-2011)-


"She was taken to task for her car and driver, an Atlanta police officer on the school district payroll who made nearly $100,000 a year, including overtime. (“You can’t get around this system and do what’s asked of you if you are thinking about parking,” Dr. Hall said.)"


The AJC didn't endorse anyone in the race for school super.(likely to spare them the embarassment of having every one of them go down in flames).I never said they did.However,they clearly favored the non-entity Democrat that lost in a landslide.


BTW-Its good to be back.Thank you.

Opus
Opus


@MaureenDowney  Thanks!  


Too bad Half-Astro isn't smart enough to understand that he just got his Astro handed to him on a platter.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Astropig @Lunaville @My2SenseWorth Wrong again.

You would have known Beverly Hall had a driver long before The New York Times reported it if you read the AJC. The AJC broke this story on its front page before the Times followed up on our reporting more than a year later. Here is just the beginning of what was a long, detailed Sunday piece. 


Reporter: Kristina Torres

Sunday Dateline:  Print Run Date: 7/4/2010

Text: Atlanta Public Schools chief Beverly Hall is the only metro area school superintendent --- and possibly the only one in Georgia --- who has an employee routinely assigned to drive her and provide personal security.

The arrangement is not necessarily unusual for an urban school system. But it is an expense that continues as Atlanta, among other Georgia school systems, faces drastic budget cuts prompted by the recession.

The APS officer who drives Hall and provides personal security earned $102,300 last year, nearly half for overtime, according to state and school system records.

redweather
redweather

Maybe he just needs someone else setting his schedule, someone who doesn't fill it with visits to places at significant distances from each other on the same day.

Astropig
Astropig

@redweather


Maybe hard for you and others to grasp,but his election conferred the power upon him to set his schedule and priorities as he sees fit.He has to work within his appropriations from the legislature,so there's a really hard cap on how much he can allocate to travel.Like someone mentioned above,$17,000 is very reasonable travel in the largest state east of the Mississippi,as Georgia is.


I guess that they couldn't dig up anyone that had any anonymous back stabbing remarks,so we're left with this Nothingburger as the worst they can say about the guy.We don't pay him to go to work,we pay him to do his work.How he prioritizes is his call.

LegislatorKoolaid
LegislatorKoolaid

From the article I read yesterday, sounds like he needs to fly down to Columbia County and meet with those folks about their CCRPI data.

Sherry Stannard Coulombe
Sherry Stannard Coulombe

I can tell you first-hand that Richard Woods is certainly one busy man. I think it's fantastic that he is visiting schools and experiences the daily life and educational programs of Georgia's public school children. Imagine a car commute to schools in South Georgia. Those schools are equally as important as Metro Atlanta Schools. Mr. Woods even attended my concert at the Carter Center and spoke from his heart to my students and audience. If helicopters make his accessibility to serve the students and teachers of Georgia much easier, he should keep using them as needed.