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Georgia schools chief takes to the skies

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.

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?"

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About the Author

Ty Tagami writes about K-12 education in Georgia. He has covered government, politics, crime and schools for the AJC since 2002.