EBR board proposing changes to travel rules

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is considering changes in its travel rules that would treat School Board members more favorably than other employees.

The proposed changes include allowing board members a higher per diem rate for meals while traveling and reimbursing board members, based on the board-approved mileage rate, for the cost of driving to School Board meetings from work or home.

The per diem for the 11 School Board members would increase from the current range of $40 to $55, in keeping with IRS per diem guidelines, to the higher range of $46 to $65 that is used by state employees.

This daily allowance covers the cost of meals eaten when board members travel, primarily to in-state and out-of-state conferences.

The change in reimbursement for travel to board meetings travel would treat board members differently from other school system employees.

Employees can get reimbursed for mileage on their personal vehicles only for approved travel undertaken after they arrive at their school or work site.

The School Board is set to consider the proposed changes when it meets Nov. 15.

The changes would revise an employee travel policy that the board approved six months ago. The board voted 8-1 May 17 in favor of the new travel policy, with two board members abstaining.

The most significant change was that all employees can now receive a flat daily per diem for meals rather than having to submit original receipts. The revised policy mostly served to treat School Board members no differently than other school system employees.

On Nov. 1, meeting as a “committee of the whole,” where all 11 members are present, the board unanimously recommended the latest changes, which affect only board members.

The agenda for the Nov. 1 meeting listed an item for “discussion/consideration of revisions” to the school system’s travel policy, but no specific information on the suggested revisions was made available in either printed or online versions of the agenda in advance of the vote.

When the item came up, School Board Vice President Tarvald Smith made a motion to approve the item without describing what he was proposing.

The Advocate interrupted the meeting to ask board members to explain what they were voting on, and School Board President Barbara Freiberg identified the areas of change as the per diem paid to board members and whether board members could get reimbursed for travel to School Board meetings from their homes or work.

Superintendent Taylor, who started work in mid-June, a month after the travel policy was adopted, described the proposed changes as “clarifications” he is making to the travel policy after hearing concerns from board members.

Taylor said in a later interview that he views board members, who are considered part-time employees, as different from regular employees.

“School Board members are not staff,” Taylor said.

One controversial change in the travel policy approved in May barred the school system from reimbursing employees who travel from home to work to comply with IRS regulations on the subject. In years past, the board has reimbursed board members for travel from home to School Board meetings.

Taylor said in an Oct. 2 memo that he proposed the changes in reimbursement policies after hearing from School Board members that they should have had a board member serve on the eight-member internal committee that suggested the revised travel rules approved in May.

“There is a serious lack of trust on the part of some board members with respect to how this matter was handled by staff,” Taylor wrote. “I do not think anything productive can come from having the staff revise the travel guidelines.”

Taylor’s memo mirrors comments made in the past by board member Vereta Lee. Lee complained in April that the travel rule rewrite that the board approved the following month had been “sabotaged” by the school system’s accounting department.

“I don’t know why you think this money belongs to you,” she said. “It belongs to the taxpayers. It’s not doing right by the employees of this district.”

Lee has been the most outspoken defender of travel by School Board member travel and unapologetic user of the privilege.

An Advocate review in November 2010 found Lee had spent about $32,000, which was more, than any other School Board member during her time serving on the board.

The board in spring 2011 limited individual board members’ travel to a maximum of $5,000 a year.