Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cell-phone stipends for CMS board?

In a billion-dollar budget,  $6,048 a year is barely pocket change.  But a proposal to spend that much on cell-phone stipends for the nine Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members stirred some lively discussion because of its symbolic impact.

"I think the last thing we want to do is even appear to increase the cost of the board,"  said Eric Davis,  who asked to have the $56-a-month stipend put on Tuesday's agenda so he could vote against it.  He noted the painful cuts the board has made in recent years:  "It's just not a smart thing for us to do."

Some board members were confused by the agenda item  --  which was understandable as the story came out at Saturday's school board retreat.

It seems newly-elected board member and chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh whether she could get a CMS phone to use on board business.  Hattabaugh talked with Chief Information Officer Scott Muri and decided it would make more sense to offer a stipend that would cover a data plan than to buy phones.

CMS already pays $470 a month to the board chair and $370 a month to other members for expenses incurred during board business inside Mecklenburg County.  New board members may not have been aware of the expense allowance because it's folded into their monthly paycheck, Hattabaugh said.  He noted that school board members are paid less than county commissioners,  who get an additional  technology stipend.

Mary McCray,  who was also elected in November, noted Saturday that she had to buy a second cell phone to keep up with board calls and emails while protecting the privacy of her old line.

Davis,  Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon  --  the minority who have complained of being shut out of decisions made by Ellis-Stewart and the new Democratic majority  --  got wind that a cell-phone stipend might be added and asked to put it up for a public discussion.

It's unclear whether that item will actually come up Tuesday.  CMS attorney George Battle suggested giving staff more time to research options and report back.  Morgan suggested making it part of 2012-13 budget talks.

Joyce Waddell said she's open on timing,  but she thinks the board should settle the question in public:  "I don't want us to look like we're hiding things."

A p.s. that will amuse regular readers: When I asked Hattabaugh after the meeting for the amount of the current expense allowance, he grinned.  "You already have it on your blog,"  he said.  Christine Mast had emailed Chief Finance Officer Sheila Shirley to ask for details,  then posted the information in a comment.  Hattabaugh said he could resend the email, but Mast had it right.  So thanks,  Christine,  for helping out with the reporting!

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