Employee travel expenses were again a hot topic of discussion at January’s Mobile County public school board work session.

Concerns were initially raised at the board’s Dec. 15 meeting regarding the Mobile County Public School System staff’s out-of-county travel expenses. After some discussion, the board voted 4-1 to approve 64 trips, totaling $74,071.89, with Commissioner Dr. William Foster voting against the measure.

Last month, the board was asked to approve 74 out-of-county trips, totaling $103,989.62. Forty-six of those trips cost $71,810.68 and were federally funded while 28 locally funded trips cost $32,178.94.

During the Jan. 21 work session, Foster, who represents District 5, again brought up what he called “discrepancies,” noting vast differences in out-of-state travel costs between individual staff members who were traveling to the same conference at the same time.

Though he commended the way school officials had reorganized and presented out-of-county travel expenses to the board, Foster said he still had some concerns.

“Once again this time, I will vote no,” he said.

Foster said he did some research on his own, looking at airfare and hotel expenses, and “came nowhere close,” to the expenses presented for the board’s approval.

District 3 School Board Commissioner Dr. Reginald Crenshaw pointed out items 40 through 43 on the out-of-county travel log, which showed three employees traveling for $1,475 each while another employee was allotted $2,475 for the same conference.

Superintendent Martha Peek said the difference in expenses could mean the employee with the higher cost is most likely driving to the conference, which in this particular case would be to the Principal Academy in Nashville. Regardless, Peek said there should not be a $1,000 discrepancy.

“I don’t think there would need to be that much of difference,” she said.

Crenshaw noted federal funds should limit the school system to choosing the cheaper option when it comes to travel expenses.
“That’s definitely not the cheapest there,” he said.

Further, Crenshaw noted some of the staff members traveling to the Principal Academy were not even principals, but instead teachers and facilitators.

Peek maintained the conference is not just for principals as it offers classes for aspiring leaders as well; however, she said she would include a description of each conference for future purposes.

According to Peek, teachers can also earn credits to maintain their certification at select conferences.

“What we would do is monitor the amount of money being spent and the connection of the conference to that person’s job,” she said.
Peek assured the board she would not bring forward anyone who had traveled excessively, noting a particular conference in Las Vegas had become a popular request.

“We’ve had a number of people go for a number of years,” she said. “We will do a much better job trying to monitor travel. We’re going to balance that out.”

Foster called it “absurd” for the board to look at and approve travel expenses with so many discrepancies.

“We can save money if we make people more accountable to the board,” he said.

Peek said she would check the numbers again and have an explanation for the board at its regular meeting Jan. 26.

“We certainly will zero in on it,” she said.

During the board’s regular meeting, Peek reiterated that numbers presented were simply estimates and not actual costs.

Employees are required to turn in actual receipts of their expenses and further documentation of their mileage after each trip, she told board members during the meeting.

Further, Foster requested he be permitted to see the receipts and detailed documentation for the particular travel log presented during the meeting once they were available.

Peek said she would be “glad to do that.”

A review of figures provided to Lagniappe indicates in November 2014, MCPSS spent a total of $64,967 on out-of-county travel, compared to $63,320 the month before. In September, the board spent $50,887, compared to just $13,321 in August.

April topped out-of-county travel expenses last year at $236,162 with 115 federally funded trips for $212,516, 11 locally funded trips for $19,896 and one state-funded trip for $3,750.

With June ringing up $62,470, the average monthly out-of-county travel costs appear to be between $50,000 and $70,000.

In December, Peek told Lagniappe these numbers present a “normal average,” considering the MCPSS has a roster of about 7,500 employees and all of those employees — whether teachers, administrators or other faculty members — are currently eligible for professional development trips.

While the school board ultimately approved out-of-county travel expenses presented last month, board president Doug Harwell suggested the board examine its current policies and potentially hold a finance committee meeting on the issue.

“It might be a good time for us as a board to look at our travel policy,” he said.

In other business, the school board approved the sale of the former Augusta Evans School property to MAB Acquisitions LLC for $1,550,000. According to Peek, the property was appraised at $1.5 million.

The board approved an increase of $43,503 for contract changes to the reroofing at Dunbar Magnet School. The original contract amount was for $404,400 and with the approved increase, goes up to $447,903.

The board also approved proposed changes to its tobacco use policy to include prohibiting the use of electronic cigarettes in addition to the use of tobacco. The proposed policy changes will be sent out for public input and two public hearings will be scheduled on the matter.

Additionally, the school board presented two options for the 2015-2016 school calendar. Option 1 and Option 2 both have the first day of school for students scheduled for Aug. 10. Notable differences between the calendars are the dates for Thanksgiving holiday, which is set for Nov. 25-27 in Option 1 and Nov. 23-27 in Option 2. Option 1 has spring break scheduled April 4-8 and Option 2 April 11-15. The last day for students in Option 1 would be May 26 while in Option 2, it’s June 1.