School Board to get mileage reimbursement

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday opted not to increase per diem for board members’ travel, but agreed to reimburse board members mileage for driving to School Board meetings from work and perhaps from home as well.

Also Thursday, the School Board voted unanimously and without discussion to rebuild the recently reopened Lee High School, 1105 Lee Drive, in Baton Rouge. It was closed in 2009 to avert state takeover.

The change in the travel rules for School Board members caused a lot of debate because it will treat board members differently from other employees in the school district.

Employees can get reimbursed for mileage on their personal vehicles only for approved travel undertaken after they arrive at their school or work site. With the change, School Board members will be able to get reimbursement — the current rate is 50 cents a mile — when they travel to a meeting from work. They also can get reimbursement from home if they work from home or are unemployed.

The board, however, stopped short of changing the per diem. The proposal had been to increase it 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 when board members travel, primarily to in-state and out-of-state conferences.

Board member Jerry Arbour made the motion to approve the mileage reimbursement but not the increased per diem. The vote was 10-1 in favor.

School Board members are legally considered part-time employees of the schools, but they are hired, or fired, by the voters.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor said the change will cost a little more and defended treating board members differently from other employees.

“Board members are not staff,” Taylor said. “There is not one of you here who contractually I am responsible for.”

Still, Taylor said he is being asked to referee disputes over rules that apply to elected officials, suggesting that the board set up a special committee to handle such matters.

“I do not like being put in this position,” he said. “I respectfully ask that I not be put in this position.”

School Board Vice President Tarvald Smith was the only no vote. He said he will not seek reimbursement for travel to board meetings and would have rejected the increased per diem in favor of the rate all employees receive.

Smith said it’s hard to justify paying School Board members more even, just a little bit, when employees have not seen a pay raise in years.

“As elected board members, we need to show some leadership in saying we’re not going to take another crumb out of the cookie jar when we haven’t done for our employees,” Smith said.

Board member David Tatman said he does not seek reimbursement for mileage now, but said some board members live and work far away from the School Board office and the cost of traveling to meetings adds up.

“I want to make sure that you don’t have a board that you have to be well to-do to sit on,” Tatman said.

Thursday’s vote to rebuild Lee High on its current site, estimated to cost $58.5 million, allows the school system to hire an architect to start drawing up plans so that it can open for during the 2015-16 school year. Rebuilding the school will involve tearing down the one-story structure and, beginning in spring 2014, rebuilding it as a two-story building that would house about 1,200 students.

Building a similar school in a new location would have meant spending $3 million to pay for land and expected wetlands mitigation, which would likely delay construction for a year, school officials have said. However, students could remain at the current site while construction occurred elsewhere.

Rebuilding Lee High at its current location, however, also means that in fall 2013, just a year after reopening, students could have to move to another location for two years. That swing space would have to house the 226 freshman and sophomores at Lee High, as well as the hundreds more expected there as the school expands and adds grade each year in the next two years. A magnet program is planned in fall 2013.