With little debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted Thursday night to increase by $500 the cap on how much individual board members can spend on travel annually.
The change was less, though, than what a couple of board members wanted. Instead, they sought permission, on rare occasions, to spend as much as $5,000 more for travel to special events.
On Oct. 5, the debate was much uglier as several board members traded barbs on the issue without resolution.
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The fight grew out of an squabble between board member Dawn Collins and Board President Evelyn Ware-Jackson that’s played out through the school year via email. It started in April when Collins asked Ware-Jackson to let her draw from a $5,000 fund that Ware-Jackson controlled that allowed her to authorize travel as long as it was for special events. It's a fund that was never used.
Collins sought to join the Belaire High School band when it traveled to Normandy, France in June for the annual D-Day commemoration there. It’s a trip Superintendent Warren Drake went on as well, but Collins ended up staying home.
Ware-Jackson denied the trip. She said no partly because board travel is typically reserved for professional development. Another reason Ware-Jackson gave was she was told by school system finance staff that no money had been budgeted in 2016-17 fiscal year in that fund so there was no money to draw from.
Collins was clearly unhappy. She noted that she had personally organized fundraisers so the band could afford to go.
“(School leaders) were about to have to cancel the trip until I stepped up and pushed to garner enough support for them,” Collins said in one email.
The issues has come up again because Collins wants to attend a Nov. 2 and 3 conference in Washington D.C. The conference is connected with the school system recently landing a nearly $15 million five-year federal magnet schools grant that will pay for four new magnet programs in Collins' district. Collins asked yet again to tap into the $5,000 special fund.
On Thursday, board member David Tatman successfully persuaded his colleagues to eliminate the $5,000 fund and instead use that money to add $500 to each board member's individual travel account. That increases the individual board member cap to $5,500.
Tatman said the extra $500 reflects inflation that has occurred since a special committee he was part of in 2011 to set the $5,000 limit.
“If you look at inflation, that would be right where we’re at,” Tatman explained.
The motion passed 8-1 with only Kenyetta Nelson-Smith voting no.
“That $5,000 is extremely low, so I don’t really see how that $500 will really help,” said Nelson-Smith.
Board members Dawn Collins and Vereta Lee voted for the increase, but they had their own concerns.
Lee suggested that board members be able to trade unused travel dollars with each other — something not currently allowed — so she and others who like to travel to professional conferences and events could go without hitting the $5,000 cap.
“I have to go to other places and see what they are doing and come back and offer it to our superintendent,” Lee said.
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Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, a few board members left thousands of dollars unspent. Board member Mike Gaudet, who had served for only six months at that time, had $4,400 left over. Jill Dyason was next, with $4,047 left over.
By contrast, Lee had just $41.83 left over. Collins had almost $154 left over, and Nelson-Smith was next with almost $371 left over.
Collins focused her concerns on the special $5,000 fund. Until it was eliminated Thursday night, it allowed Ware-Jackson to tap into the fund so she or her designee could attend special events, but didn't define what those were. Collins offered a definition Thursday night, suggesting that a “special event" could include travel by a board member on behalf of the board member's schools.
Board travel has been a source of tension for years.
An Advocate review in November 2010 found that spending on travel by East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members had consistently grown in the previous years, reaching almost $62,000 during the 2009-10 fiscal year. In 2016-17, the board spent only $27,491 collectively on travel.