By Brett Milam
An Amelia Elementary School teacher has been suspended without pay after school officials allege he was taking kickbacks on Washington D.C. field trips.
At a special school board meeting on Dec. 21, Superintendent Keith Kline and the rest of the board passed a unanimous resolution to begin terminations proceedings against Trent Davis, a language arts teacher, and suspend him without pay.
Davis could not be reached for comment.
West Clermont Local Schools issued the following statement on the matter, “In the fall of 2017, administration was notified that two travel companies have made monetary payments to two staff members of the District. These travel companies arranged for transportation, meals and lodging for student travel to Washington D.C. The District promptly reported the matter to the Auditor of State, who is currently investigating. Due to the ongoing investigation, the School District has no further comment at this time.”
A former Glen Este Middle School teacher, James Gossett, who used to be the tour director for the D.C. program, told The Sun he felt what was happening to Davis was an injustice.
“I was terribly upset because everything he was in trouble for was over the precedent I had set over the previous 10 years,” he said. “It is not fair to let Trent Davis bear all the responsibility.”
David Yost, State Auditor of Ohio, laid out guidelines for monies in a 2011 document, stating, in part, that any monies paid from a private travel vendor to a school employee is considered public monies and “must be remitted to the school district.”
However, that does not prohibit public school teachers, administrators and other officials from accepting monies from the tour company for “necessary travel expenses to accompany students on a school trip, so long as the travel expenses are provided in connection with the contract between the district and the tour company to provide tour services.”
In other words, it becomes public money by virtue of the school official acting under the “color of office.”
Gossett said in 1993 or 1994, he was asked by the principal of Glen Este Middle School if he’d be willing to chaperone 34 Glen Este students to Washington D.C.
At the time, Gossett said the tour company used was American Student Travel, a company based in Texas.
“After our trip was completed, American Student Travel recruited me to continue to provide this trip to Glen Este,” he said. “This company told me that my agreeing to be the tour director would earn me points toward free airline tickets. I could have a chaperone for each 10 students taking the trip. It was not easy to find enough teachers to chaperone my trips. I used teachers, parents, teacher aides and para-professionals as my chaperones.”
In 2000, Gossett said he switched to Croswell, a local bus and tour company based out of Williamsburg, because it was cheaper.
Croswell would give him a price per student, he said, and he told Croswell that he would tack on a stipend fee so that he could give his chaperones money. Or as Gossett said Croswell called it, a “tip.”
According to Gossett, he had an assistant tour director and chaperones that would accompany him on these trips, logging many hours of preparation and work to ensure everything runs smoothly for all the students. Gossett said it was about 100-200 hours on logistics.
Each chaperone would make between $80 and $100, with the assistant director making between $1,000 and $1,600.
The monies derived from an extra $45 tacked on to what Croswell charged for the trip.
“Why not give these chaperones a little extra incentive?” Gossett said, adding that they weren’t going to just do it out of the “goodness of their hearts.”
He continued, “What each parent paid was still considerably cheaper than what American Student Travel, and World Strides (another tour company) were charging for the same trip.”
In 2009, Gossett said he increased the stipend to $65 after he was told to pay for the substitute teachers who would be covering for the teacher chaperones. He maintains that the trip was still cheaper than what other companies were charging.
Gossett also maintains that Kline knew he was getting stipend money or as Gossett said he now calls it, a “kickback.”
“When I retired from being tour director, I told Mr. Trent Davis, who agreed to become the new director, that he too should charge this stipend since West Clermont might be asking him to pay for teacher subs,” Gossett said. “Our school district approved these trips and should have known how I, as tour director, apportioned my stipend money. That included paying for teacher subs.”
According to Gossett, Davis has paid himself $2,600 each year for the three years he was tour director, or about $7,800.
“No one who has been a chaperone of mine since 2008, or Mr. Davis since 2014, was aware that an employee could not accept more than $25 per student without prior approval of the superintendent,” Gossett said.
Gossett said Kline wanted Davis to repay $17,745 in these so-called “kickbacks,” but that Gossett himself walked into the school’s administrative offices with $17,745 in cash and in the form of a check to pay it back himself, saying he felt responsible for much of the trouble that Davis was in.
“I would like the public to know what’s happened,” Gossett said, adding that he’s more than willing to pay that money back if the parents feel that’s what should happen. “I didn’t feel that money was an exuberant amount.”
On Dec. 13, Gossett said he spoke to the Ohio Ethics Commission about the issue.
“What it comes down to is, he was held solely responsible,” Gossett said.