Hartman questions FCSD trip spending

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County Board of Trustees voted to approve its nearly $46.3 million budget Tuesday night, but it was a discussion over comparatively less money that ignited the fireworks.

At one point, one board member hollered at another amid questions over her own travel expenses, eventually prompting the board chairman to angrily slam his gavel several times to restore order.

It all started when board member Paula Hartman started quizzing district Superintendent Dr. J.R. Green about travel expenses and policies, both by students and the board.

Specifically, Hartmann asked about the district’s Griffin Bow Tie Club’s recent trip to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Bow Tie Club “is a comprehensive group mentoring program for middle and high school male students,” according to the school district’s website.

“When they go on trips, don’t we still have to approve it if they go out of state?” Hartman asked. “Didn’t the Bow Tie Club go to Churchill Downs? When was that approved?”

Green said the Bow Tie Club’s budget falls under the superintendent’s discretionary account, though he couldn’t say when the Churchill Downs trip was approved or how much the trip cost. Typically it’s approved at the beginning of the year, he said.

“I’d have to go back and check. It very well could’ve been an oversight,” Green said.

Green later defended the Churchill Downs trip, saying students benefited greatly from it.

“That was an absolutely wonderful experience for our young people,” he said. “This is an absolutely ideal way to use district resources, to expose our young people. They saw some things they otherwise would not have seen.”

Then Hartman asked whether approval has been given for the Fairfield District Honors Chorus’ upcoming trip to Italy. Green said it has been approved, and that about 20 students and five or six chaperones are going.

Hartman’s next question lit the fuse.

“What’s the board policy on board members going?” Hartman asked. “I understand that [board member] Sylvia Harrison is going, to support them.”

Board chairman William Frick quickly interjected.

Frick said Harrison is receiving $600 to cover her per diem expenses in Italy. He also defended Harrison’s travel habits while criticizing Hartman’s.

“What it’s paying for is the per diem amount, and I approved that,” Frick said. “Just ask me when you want to go to Myrtle Beach for a finance conference then, Ms. Hartman.”

“That was actually to learn something. It’s still something to learn about the budget,” Hartman replied.

Harrison angrily defended her travel spending, stating that she pays for her travel.

“I know you’re saying this so [The Voice] will write it in the paper. My trip to Italy is paid out of my pocket,” Harrison said. “When we went to Myrtle Beach, when all the board stayed in a regular hotel, did you tell [The Voice] you stayed in a hotel that cost $500 a night? Don’t worry about where I’m going because my trips are paid for out of my pocket.”

Harrison later apologized for the outburst before the meeting adjourned.

The Voice couldn’t immediately verify Harrison’s claim about Hartman spending $500 for a hotel room because school board agenda documents don’t itemize expenses.

Public records, however, show that Harrison’s travel expenses outpaced Hartman’s by $4,300 during the 2018 calendar year.

In 2018, Harrison took five trips totaling 23 days at a cost of $9,742.82. Board documents state she traveled to San Antonio, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Hilton Head, Charleston and Myrtle Beach for various conferences.

Hartman took four trips totaling 14 days at a cost of $5,442.38. She traveled to two conferences in Myrtle Beach and one each in Hilton Head and Charleston, records show.

Debate finally ended with several swings from Frick’s gavel. The board promptly voted to approve the budget 6-1, with Hartman opposing.

As to Hartman’s original question about travel policies, Green said the board has none.

“There is no board policy. So Ms. Harrison or any other chaperone would attend the trip. Ms. Harrison would be no different,” Green said.

The board, however, did enact a policy in 2013, according to a story in The Voice.

Former board chair Beth Reid announced the policy at a July 2013 meeting. At the time it was decided to place all board travel of $600 and above as an agenda item under the Chairman’s Report, where it is today.

Board members are required to report travel, though board approval is not needed for trips.

The policy was enacted “for knowledge of other Board members, so we know who’s going and who’s not, who’s going to be in attendance and who can report back to us after attending a conference,” Reid said at the time.

It was also enacted “so we know we’re not stepping all over each other,” Reid continued. “We don’t necessarily need for all Board members to be at all conferences.”