Board Debates Legal Fees, Considers Pay Increase

Hartman: Legal Budget a ‘Slush Fund’

WINNSBORO – As the Fairfield County School Board, during their April 7 meeting, passed first reading of a more than $37 million budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Board members took up the topic of travel expenses, Board compensation, legal fees and funding for Fairfield Behavioral Health Services.

Weighing in at $37,401,195 (up from $35,548,351 in 2014-2015), the 2015-2016 budget includes no operational millage increase, Kevin Robinson, Director of Finance, told the Board April 7. The operational millage will remain at 203.1 mills, Robinson said, while the debt service millage will decrease slightly from 32 to 23.6 mills. Robinson said he expects an increase in local revenues from $22.5 million last year to $24.3 million this year, based on an expanding property tax base in Fairfield County. The budget passed first reading on a 4-1 vote, with Andrea Harrison (District 1) voting against and Annie McDaniel (District 4) and Paula Hartman (District 2) abstaining.

Legal Fees

Hartman questioned why, with actual legal spending on the decline in recent years, the District continued to budget a total of $307,707 for legal fees ($282,707 under the Board’s “Legal Fees,” and $25,000 for the District’s “Legal Services,” the latter of which Robinson said was for the expenses associated with recruitment and retention of foreign teachers).

Hartman said money had been redirected from the Legal Fees budget to fund teacher Christmas bonuses, as well as a field trip in 2014-2015, and suggested the amount budgeted be lowered and shifted into the fund balance.

“This looks like this (the Legal Fees line item) is being used as a slush fund, because it’s been used for bonuses, it’s been used to send the chorus class to Disney World, instead of for legal fees,” Hartman said. “I certainly think we’re budgeted way too much when a very little amount has been spent.”

During the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the District spent $96,987 in legal fees, according to a draft of the upcoming budget provided to The Voice, while the 2014-2015 legal expenses are expected to top out at $39,765. Legal Services expenditures, meanwhile, are projected to hit just $13,782 by the end of this fiscal year.

Dr. J.R. Green, Superintendent of Fairfield County Schools, told The Voice this week that referring to the legal budget as a “slush fund” was “absurd.”

“We had two expenditures out of the legal fund this year,” Green said, “for the employee gift cards at Christmas and to pay part of the expense of sending the Middle School chorus to Disney World. Both were presented to the Board and they voted on them.”

The gift cards, Green said, set the legal fund back approximately $35,000, while the portion of the trip to Disney World paid out of the fund was approximately $12,000.

“I don’t know if a couple of years reflects enough of a trend to reduce the budgeting (for legal fees),” Green said. “I would hope that we continue down this road we’re going down.”

Green told the Board during the April 7 meeting that he would “wait until this (reduction in legal spending) continues for multiple years before we determine we don’t necessarily need that amount to be budgeted.”

Behavioral Health Services

Green said Fairfield Behavioral Health Services (FBHS) was, like last year, requesting $60,000 from the District to provide services to students. The funding last year surprised some Board members, specifically Harrison, who questioned its inclusion in the 2014-2015 budget. During the April 7 meeting, Harrison asked for a financial breakdown of services provided by to the District by FBHS.

“The issue is that funding is limited and we’re assisting them with providing funding so they don’t have to cut services,” Harrison said. “Then we need to know specifically what we’re paying for. We may have been advised previously that this was a budget shortfall on their part, which to me doesn’t necessarily constitute the School District being responsible. Behavioral Health is a County entity.”

Green said he would provide the documentation before the second reading of the budget.

Travel

William Frick (District 6) said the Board may want to consider a discussion on the amount and expense of travel taken by Board members throughout the year, particularly when considering what he said was the public perception of extensive travel.

“The public perception is that it is a paid vacation,” Frick said. “I assure you it is not. I certainly think folks should go to the state annual conference. I think there’s a benefit of the national conference. But I think it is something we should be aware of, as far as public perception.”

Frick said some districts limit the number of trips board members can take in a year, as well as limit the number of board members who can attend any given trip.

McDaniel said her concern over travel was a methodology to “ensure when Board members travel, we get the best value for our dollars.” The issue came up, she said, when she and Hartman traveled recently to Nashville for the National School Boards Association conference. McDaniel said she had found a cheaper flight and cheaper rooms, but ran into difficulty at the District level when attempting to rearrange her travel plans.

“Last minute finding a flight and a hotel that’s cheaper, that’s a noble attempt,” Board Chairwoman Beth Reid (District 7) said, “but at some point it’s too late. If the Board clerk has been directed to make these hotel reservations or plane reservations, the wheels have started turning at that point and Board members shouldn’t be making their own travel arrangements.

“If you want the cheapest rate, then find it, put it on your credit card and get reimbursed,” Reid added.

Hartman asked Reid why she was “making an issue” of Hartman and McDaniel, who switched to less expensive hotel rooms in Nashville, saving $1,500 on the trip.

“Right,” Reid said. “And how much did you spend?”

Reid said the District did not have problems with every Board member who travels, to which McDaniel replied was only because some Board members do not travel.

“If you would travel and go to some of these conferences you would learn a lot,” McDaniel said to Reid, “and not make some of the mistakes that you’re making up here.”

Compensation

Henry Miller (District 3) said it may be time for the Board to take a look at its compensation rate, which currently stands at $35 per meeting.

“Other boards around the state, their compensation is higher per month,” Miller said. “I know we serve the same constituents as County Council. In my opinion, we do more work. I think we should be (paid) at least half of (what) County Council (makes).”

County Council members receive a $15,000 a year base salary, with an additional $4,800 for the chairperson and $3,000 for the vice chairperson.

“We didn’t get on the Board for the money,” Miller added, “but we didn’t get on the Board to lose, either.”

Frick said he had researched board pay throughout the state, citing as an example Lancaster County, which pays its board members $400 a month. Harrison, however, noted the apparent paradox in the Board’s recent discussions.

“So, in one breath we’re saying the perception of the public is we spend too much money on travel to become educated, yet we turn around and asked to be paid (more),” Harrison said. “I think we need to thoroughly talk this out and work through it more. We meet once a month. I don’t care if I’m compensated or not.

But, she added, “I’m not recommending against it, if that’s what the Board wants to do.”

Frick said it was just a discussion topic. The $400 example, he said, came to $4,800 per Board member per year. Travel, he said, averages between $1,500 and $3,000 per trip.

“And there are some folks who have taken three or four trips a year,” Frick said. “If you’re taking that many trips, that gets pretty high.”

Of the 81 school districts in the state, 31 offer no compensation. Of the 50 that do pay members, those range from as low as $25 per meeting (Florence 1) to $800 a month (Richland 2). For a complete list, see: http://scsba.org/general/aboutus_schoolboardfacts_boardmemberpay.pdf

The Board took no action on either travel or compensation. The Board will hold a budget work session on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

 

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