Wednesday, May 23, 2012

$4,800 for London networking

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart was on the plane for the ill-fated Chamber of Commerce trip to London last weekend.  But the cancellation due to airplane mechanical problems may have been a blessing, because Ellis-Stewart has already spent most of her travel allotment for this fiscal year.

CMS provides $5,150 a year in travel money for the chair and $3,100 for other members.  Ellis-Stewart took office (and the chairmanship) in December,  about halfway through the budget year that ends June 30.  She had a tad over $2,800 to spend,  and had already used all but $283 on two trips to Raleigh and a National School Boards Association conference in Boston (see the board's spending as of Monday here).

The chamber's trip to London cost $4,800 for public officials. Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday that she had been talking to other board members about letting her use their unspent travel money.  It's not clear whether she'd gotten that money lined up,  or even whether CMS had actually paid the bill.  Rhonda Lennon, who had the biggest chunk of unspent money (just over $3,600),  said Tuesday that Ellis-Stewart asked her Saturday, the day the flight was supposed to depart, to help cover her cost.  Lennon said she declined. She said was concerned about CMS officials spending money beyond what's budgeted, especially while they're trying to get additional money from Mecklenburg County commissioners.

It's not unheard of for board members who don't travel much to offer some of their budget to those who do. Richard McElrath  --  who, like Lennon, has spent nothing so far this year  --  transferred just over $500 to Vice Chairman Mary McCray this year.  Nor is it unusual for board members to join other public officials and executives on the chamber's annual visits to check out business, economic development and government in other cities.  Eric Davis went to Seattle with the group when he was board chair last year.

But the overseas trip and the expense it entailed was unusual.  During the last budget year,  CMS board members spent only about $12,500 of the $29,950 allotted for travel,  with individual spending ranging from nothing for Lennon to $3,847 for Davis (see the 2010-11 travel report here).

Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday she thought the trip was valuable because of the opportunity to network with business leaders.  At a time when CMS is working to build public-private partnerships, "it's good to have them on your side,"  she said.

Lennon was skeptical.  "You can buy a whole lot of lunches for $4,800," she said.

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