EBR School Board freezes out-of-district travel — for now

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday voted to freeze all board member spending on out-of-district travel between now and Dec. 31, when the current board’s term expires.

The board on Thursday also shifted salary levels approved in May. That included adjusting salaries for bus drivers and paying more in stipends to some veteran teachers rated effective but who lack a master’s degree.

Though Thursday’s discussion was mostly calm, board travel has been a source of tension for years.

An Advocate review in November 2010 found that spending on travel by East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members had consistently grown in the previous years, reaching almost $62,000 during the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Starting in March 2011, three months after the current board took office, the board has ratcheted back spending. It limited board members’ yearly travel spending to $5,000 per member, later reduced to $4,250 per member, with board leadership allowed to spend a little more.

The latest annual totals released in advance of Thursday’s meeting show that board members collectively spent just $25,400 on travel in fiscal year 2013-14. That’s about 40 percent of 2009-10 levels.

Some board members want to cut spending still more. They suggest bringing in speakers and offering training in Baton Rouge rather than paying members to travel out of town, as well as pooling resources with neighboring districts. Other board members, however, defend travel, saying attending national conventions allows them to gather useful ideas they can bring back to Baton Rouge.

Thursday’s vote on travel coincides with the fall 2014 election season. It’s unlikely to save much money. The conferences board members typically attend were held earlier this year. The freeze consequently didn’t generate much opposition Thursday.

The item was approved in a 9-1 vote, with only Kenyetta Nelson-Smith voting no.

Board member Vereta Lee, an avid traveler and an unapologetic defender of the practice, abstained. The Advocate review in 2010 found she had spent more on travel than her peers, about $32,000 worth between 2007 and 2010.

Lee suggested as an alternative cutting travel spending in half. She said some board members who seek professional development hours required by the state should not be barred from doing so out of parish.

Lee said the fall elections make the freeze largely a moot issue.

“I don’t know how any of us who are seeking re-election have time to go anywhere,” she said.

In 2013-14, three board members — Jill Dyason, Craig Freeman and David Tatman — spent nothing on travel. Spending by the eight other board members that fiscal year ranged from $275 for Randy Lamana to $4,398.80 for board Vice President Tarvald Smith. Lamana died April 16 and was replaced on May 1 by Mary Lynch, who is serving the last eight months of Lamana’s term.

Freeman, who says he’s not running for re-election, proposed the freeze. He said he’s worried about plans not to buy new school buses this year and hopes the travel freeze will free up money to buy at least one new bus.

Board member Jerry Arbour was dubious.

“I think it’s a very small item in the scheme of the amount of money we’ve dealt with in the past few weeks,” Arbour said.

Dyason also rejected tying board travel with bus purchases. She also defended careful use of board travel.

“I did not use one penny of mine last year, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think some of it isn’t beneficial,” Dyason said.

The board also agreed Thursday to adjust a new salary schedule approved in May so a small number of veteran drivers can land at a higher “step” on the schedule, but the net effect is to lower overall spending on driver salaries by $213,000. The school system plans to take those savings and develop performance pay for veteran drivers.

In that same vote, the board agreed to pay the same amount to all teachers with just a bachelor’s degree who earn stipends for their classroom effectiveness. The stipends the board approved in May paid bachelors-only teachers much less money after they reached “Step 11,” roughly equivalent to 11 years on the job.

The vote was 9-1 with Lee voting no and Nelson-Smith abstaining.

This story was edited after publication to clarify travel expenses for Board Member Vereta Lee.