Sequestration: Ed. Dept. plans Las Vegas conference as students lose services

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Sequestration is not having a deterrent effect on federal conferences in Las Vegas.

This week, the Department of Education announced it would be going forward with a three-day conference at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn calls the decision is inappropriate.

“At a time when the Administration is making the dubious claim that 1,172,000 students ‘will lose access to suport [sic] programs and special education,’ the Department should not be diverting resources to lavish conferences,” Coburn wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan Wednesday.

The conference is scheduled to take place in December to train “financial aid professionals.”

“The [Federal Student Aid] Training Conference offers premiere hands-on, face-to-face training for financial aid professionals throughout the financial aid community,” the announcement reads.

“This year’s conference program will focus on topics related to changes in Title IV policies and programs that affect your job and, more importantly, the students you serve,” it adds.

Coburn called on the department to cancel the conference and conduct a review on any upcoming conferences for the rest of the year. He further requested additional information on the cost of upcoming conferences and events.

The $2.5 billion budget reduction at the Department of Education under sequestration affects educational improvement, special education, technical education and some federal student aid programs.

“Effective management of sequestration is critical, and the Department should not be choosing Washington bureaucrats over funding for schools that serve low-income children,” Coburn wrote. One way to help “free up thousands in grant dollars for schools,” he said, would be to require some furlough days for 50 employees in the Office of Communications and Outreach with six-figure salaries.

“[T]hroughout the Department, there are numerous positions that are important but not as critical to the mission of the agency as serving the schoolchildren of the nation,” he wrote.

Coburn further questioned the point of a Duncan’s annual bus tour. This year, he is scheduled to go through New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California.

“It is unclear how this messaging event will directly benefit the taxpayers, states, schools, and students that the Department serves,” he wrote. “The Department should consider the cost to taxpayers when planning messaging events like the 2013 bus tour. Education dollars belong in the classroom and should not be wasted on campaign-style bus tours and junkets.”

Cameron French, a spokesman with the Department of Education, explained to TheDC in an email that the department alternates its FSA training conference for financial aid professionals each year between the Eastern region of the U.S. and the Central/Western Region and decided on Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas because it provided the best value for the conference’s needs. He further noted that cost control measures in the past five years has led to a drop in the cost per attendee of 60 percent or $437 in 2007 to $175 in 2012.

In response to Coburn’s letter, French wrote that the Education Department cannot move funding for its FSA conferences, back to school tours and employee salaries to other programs.

“Each accounts and the programs within the accounts had to be reduced by the same percentage. Because those big programs get so much more in appropriations than our accounts that pay for employee salaries, travel, conferences, etc., they also got cut by more,” he wrote. “We have cut back conferences already. We have also pared back hiring in all offices, including the offices Sen. Coburn singled out.  We cut $85 million from our accounts covering salaries and expenses in the 2013 sequester.”

According to French the department has already eliminated, restructured and cut costs on other conferences.

This article has been updated with the Department of Education’s response.

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