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Utah school districts should rethink spending thousands of dollars to send educators to China each year, given current budget woes, according to a legislative audit released Thursday.

In 2009, Utah sent 83 educators to China at an estimated cost to the state of about $90,000, according to the audit. A Chinese government-affiliated organization pays most of the costs of the trips, intended to help educators from districts with Chinese programs.

But Utah school districts or the state Office of Education typically pay registration fees ranging from $450 to $900 a person and airfare to certain U.S. airports. And some districts pay per diem and/or U.S. lodging expenses as well, according to the audit.

Many Utah schools offer Mandarin language programs. However, Utah sent more than four times as many educators to China in 2009 as other participating states, on average. The audit says "school districts should consider forgoing the trips until school budgets improve."

"Our concern was, and it was a concern of the legislator that requested it, is that this is a fairly expensive program and why are we sending so many people to it, and what we did find is that we were sending far more than any other state," Tim Osterstock, an audit manager with the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, told lawmakers Thursday.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who sits on the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, said Thursday she believes that traveling helps educate people, but the program "sounds like a junket in a way."

According to the audit, 159 Utah educators from the Davis, Granite, Canyons, Jordan, Nebo, Murray, Salt Lake City, Provo, Park City, Cache and Weber school districts, the state education office, higher education and charter schools have participated in the weeklong program since 2008.

Mary Bailey, executive director of student achievement for Canyons School District, said Canyons sent about 11 educators last June, and she's gone on the trip as well. She said the program has helped Canyons administrators expand and build upon the district's Mandarin language programs, now in 13 district schools. She said what she learned in China has helped her work with the district's visiting Chinese teachers.

But she agrees with auditors that it's no longer necessary to send as many educators. "We can use the people we've already sent to continue to spread the word in our own district."

But Linda Mariotti, a Granite School District assistant superintendent, said that she worries that cutting back might prevent other districts from taking advantage of the opportunity. She said that the program helped Granite "get a great bang for the buck," considering districts don't have to cover most of the cost. Granite educators who went on the trip have been instrumental in helping to support the district's numerous Mandarin and other language programs, she said.

The audit subcommittee referred the matter to the Education Interim Committee and Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee for further review.