Plaza de Armas sheds light on Zarate’s travel expenses

The Alamo Colleges trustee travel plan

Alamo Colleges Trustee Roberto Zarate travels and dines most months on the district’s dime, attending conferences, meetings, awards ceremonies, and legislative sessions in Austin. In 2011, he spent at least $6,000, traveling as far as D.C. and Charleston, South Carolina, but more often commuting to DFW, Houston, and Austin.

Zarate, an eight-year incumbent who is facing challenger Ramiro Nava in the May 12 election, spent almost $2,000 in February 2011 on a five-day trip to the nation’s capital for the Community College National Legislative Summit, an annual event he attended again this year.

Zarate’s not rogue. The expenses are authorized by the board of trustees’ policies, which allow the district’s nine trustees to attend any of nine annual conferences and events without obtaining additional board approval. The authorized list includes events sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees, the American Association of Community Colleges, and three Texas groups, including the Higher Education Coordinating Board Conference and a trustee association that was co-founded by Zarate.

Zarate, who chairs the board’s Audit, Budget & Finance Committee, doesn’t just rely on the district to cover large expenses. He also turns in receipts for $17 meals when he travels to Austin for meetings with legislators, and $3 parking fees in San Antonio.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie said Zarate is an invaluable member of the board, who has helped the district face funding and curriculum challenges – especially challenges to the need-based Pell Grant Program – and shape the state and national conversations about measuring the performance of community colleges. Zarate is a current board member of the Association of Community Colleges Trustees, the only AC trustee elected to a national role, Leslie said, and has been appointed by Governor Rick Perry to three committees, including the Task Force for Incentives in Higher Education.

“Part of that is that the Governor has acknowledged his unique skill set,” Leslie said.

Leslie notes that outcome-based funding initiatives will return in the next legislative session, and said Zarate will play an important role in shaping them.

“It makes a huge difference when [trustees] are current on trends, issues and challenges,” Leslie said. “And [Zarate’s] retired, so he has a greater opportunity to attend these things.”

Zarate is retired from the Northside Independent School District, where he worked for more than 35 years, 16 of them as principal of Mary Hull Elementary. He did not return an email and phone call seeking comment for this story.

“In his defense, if he needs it, Zarate really thinks of himself as a full-time trustee,” said Trustee Blakely Latham Fernandez, who is leaving the board at the end of her term in May.

“I know as a rule we get nuggets back from the conferences,” Fernandez said. But she doesn’t spend district dollars to travel to conferences other than training mandated by the legislature, which last year included two days in Austin for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Leadership Conference. District expense reports show a $144 hotel bill for 2011, and a $225 registration fee from 2010.

When Fernandez was first appointed to the board in 2009, she recalls another trustee mentioned, almost casually, “It’s just as easy to fill out the tax forms,” for an income-tax credit.

“So that’s what I’ve always done, save our local dollars for the kids.”

Or the faculty. In March, the board of trustees approved a new salary program that would result in raises for some 800 faculty members, but that increase comes with a decrease in summer pay and a caveat – if the district can find $3 million to get it done. Leslie said the district has identified $1.4 million, and he’s confident they can come up with the remainder.

Fernandez, a managing partner with the law firm Tuggey Fernandez LLP, is no stranger to trade conferences. She questions how much redundancy there is at the various education events. The Association of Community College Trustees presents multiple annual gatherings, including a leadership conference, which took place in Dallas last year (Zarate’s total was more than $1,400, but $500 of that was reimbursed by the organization). This year it’s scheduled for Boston.

“The question is, could you get the same information from the Chronicle of Higher Education,” Fernandez asked.

Fernandez has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the board to broaden its itinerary to include the Chamber of Commerce’s annual SA to DC lobbying trip, which she chaired this past year. Heads of corporations engaged in workforce training development, such as Boeing and Toyota, make the jaunt, yet when Fernandez joined the board, “It wasn’t on anybody’s radar at all.”

The trustees weren’t interested, but another extracurricular field trip got the green light: the January 2012 Futures Assembly Conference in Orlando, Fla., where the district was a finalist for an award. Fernandez and fellow Trustee Denver McClendon tried without luck to limit the district’s board representation to one. Instead, four board members, including Zarate, made the trip, with a total price tag of more than $10,000 – probably close to $14,000 including administrators who also attended. The registration alone was $750 apiece.

Trustee Gareth Beitzel had a reason to attend. He was listed as a presenter at the conference. So were Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie and Vice Chancellor for Finance & Administration Diane Snyder.

In the end, the district bagged the honor. It was in the category of Planning, Governance & Finance, for a program titled “Collaboration, Communication and Consensus: An Organic Approach to the Budget Crisis.”

(210) 218-2151

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