Vol. 2, Issue 18, May 4, 2004
Cleveland School Superintendent Pays $20 Million for Space Trip
Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett on Friday defended her use of foundation money to reserve a place on a Russian rocket to the International Space Station, saying it would help her attract millions of dollars in grants.
"Most of the expenses were paid by contributions from the foundations, not taxpayers' money," said Byrd-Bennett. "Our recent state audit was the best this district has received in a decade. I think I deserve a little treat."
Byrd-Bennett and her staff travel to professional development conferences and lobby for grants that support programs throughout the school system. A school spokesman said the district raised about $85 million this way in 2002-2003. Approximately $20 million of these funds are being used to fund the space trip.
"I find this misuse of funds absolutely inexcusable," said Greg Flores, of the nonprofit Cleveland Citizens for Education organization. "I mean, no one wants to see Byrd-Bennett shot into space more than I do. But this is a round-trip ticket, unfortunately."
Her decision to spend $20 million on passage on the Soyuz space capsule is particularly unpopular in part because the Cleveland public school system has just laid off over 850 teachers, in the face of a $100 million deficit.
"This is already one of the worst-performing school systems in the nation, and they have just eliminated most of what few extra programs they had," added Flores. "The $20 million she is paying to fly into orbit could have saved, for example, the specialized reading program. Instead, she will be spending two weeks taking pictures out of the space station windows."
The Soyuz mission is scheduled to launch on July 17. Byrd-Bennett will be the second such paying space tourist, following in the footsteps of millionaire Dennis Tito.
"The intangible benefits of this experience will extend to the entire Cleveland school district," said Byrd-Bennett. "People will once again look up to the system and, I think, be inspired to succeed even in the face of our challenging resource limitations."
Mayor Jane Campbell publicly pledged her support for Byrd-Bennett at the news conference, along with numerous other city officials. However, after the superintendent left, Campbell added confidentially that the city had a contingency plan in place to deal with the expense.
"For an additional million," Campbell noted, "the Russians are willing to leave her up there. Now that would be a benefit that would extend to the entire Cleveland school district."