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Charlotte Observer: CMS Board May Boost Travel Budget After Lacking London Money

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will consider boosting its travel budget after Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart found herself short of the $4,800 she needed to pay for the recent London trip sponsored by the Charlotte Chamber. Ellis-Stewart said Wednesday she had submitted an invoice to interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and was on the plane that was supposed to take a group of executives, civic leaders and elected officials to London on May 19. But the trip was canceled after mechanical problems kept the flight from taking off, and the chamber has said taxpayers won't be charged. Stewart, who took office in December, already had spent all but $284 of her travel budget for the year that ends June 30, according to travel records provided by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She said Wednesday that two board members had agreed to let her use some of their unspent travel money. Richard McElrath told the Observer he was willing to let Ellis-Stewart use all of the $3,110 he had left. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, who was appointed to the board in January, said she'd agreed to give the chair $800 from the $1,350 she hasn't spent. The board budgets $29,950 a year for school board travel, with $5,150 for the chair and $3,100 for each of the other eight members. This year's election and change of chairmanship required some juggling. Ellis-Stewart's budget was $2,575 for half a year as board chair, plus $517 from money that wasn't spent by three members who left office in December. The CMS report shows Ellis-Stewart spent just over $2,800 on two trips to Raleigh and the National School Boards Association conference in Boston. State law requires board members to get 12 hours of continuing education credit, which often involves trips to out-of-town meetings or classes. "Over the last several months, I have heard from a few board members that we do need additional dollars," Ellis-Stewart said Wednesday. "By the time you do the costs and the travel, it pretty much exhausts your travel budget. I believe we will talk about that at a future retreat." The trip to London was not directly related to education, but Ellis-Stewart said it was a good chance to network with business leaders who could help CMS in public-private partnerships. The chamber's annual trips are designed to let Charlotte's decision-makers check out economic development, quality of life and public policy in other cities. Her colleagues voiced mixed opinions about her decision to exceed her travel budget and the need to boost that budget. In 2010-11, with CMS in the depths of recession, the board spent less than $17,500. Then-chair Eric Davis had the highest spending: $3,847 for five trips, including the chamber's 2011 visit to Seattle. Davis and other members say Ellis-Stewart isn't the first board member to borrow unspent travel money from colleagues. Kaye McGarry, who held an at-large seat until December, has done so, they say. But Davis said it is clear that members must have the money lined up before they commit to a trip. The totals reported by board members would have given Ellis-Stewart almost $4,200, $600 short of the bill for London. Ellis-Stewart said two members had given her "maybes" on helping with the tab. Davis said he wouldn't support an increased travel budget "given the financial situation the school district is in." The school board is seeking a $27.5 million increase from county commissioners to provide 3 percent staff raises after three years of frozen wages. Board member Rhonda Lennon, who has spent none of her travel budget this year, said Ellis-Stewart asked her for unspent travel money on the day her flight was scheduled to depart, and she declined. Lennon said she didn't consider networking a good enough reason to spend the money. "You can buy a whole lot of lunches for $4,800," she said. McElrath, who already had transferred about $500 from his travel budget to Vice Chairman Mary McCray, said he doesn't mind letting others use his money because "I have no plan on using it." He said he wishes there were more flexibility on spending. Member Joyce Waddell, who joined Ellis-Stewart and McCray at the national conference in Boston, agreed with the chair that travel money can run out quickly after a session like that. "I think it needs to be increased," she said. Tim Morgan said he was one of the "maybes" on transferring money to Ellis-Stewart. Morgan agrees the board should discuss travel spending, but noted that he hasn't used his full allotment in three years on the board. "I personally don't need more travel money." Copyright 2012 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.