PWCS Board Members Clash Over Travel Reimbursement Policy

| March 17, 2019 | 0 Comments | Education

Prince William County School Board Occoquan representative Lillie Jessie proposed that her board change its travel policy to allow for board members to be reimbursed for travel inside their districts and to and from board meetings.

Read the document.

School division documents shared by Coles school board member Willie Deutsch reveal that between Jan. 1 of 2016 to Dec. 31 of 2018,* Jessie received $6,772.52 in travel reimbursements designated “mileage.” Others on the board submitted $301 or less. Mallard Memo to Deutsch Reimbursements 01.16.19

Since the fall of 2018, the board has clarified its policy. The current policy states that school board members can only claim expenses for travel outside their district for school-related duties and cannot claim travel to school board meetings. They can claim funds for professional development.

The changes were unanimously approved.

But before that, there was no unifying policy and Jessie did not break any rules; she interpreted the guidelines differently than her colleagues.

This became a point of controversy when at the Mar. 6 school board meeting, Jessie proposed altering the new policy to include travel within one’s district. She argued that PWCS principals are given travel reimbursements when traveling outside their schools, and most private sector jobs provide travel reimbursements.

Loree Williams of the Woodbridge District said she was in favor of the change since it would allow for more economic diversity on the board.

But Gainesville representative Alyson Satterwhite mentioned that only one school board member had been taking reimbursements for travel inside her district and implied some of those trips were not directly school board functions.

“We need to define what is meant by official school board functions,” said Satterwhite. She said if people are claiming things that are not official school functions “that’s not right.”

“VSBA [Virginia School Board Association] or NSBA [National School Board Association]“those are the conferences we should go to….Some outside of that cost a lot more,” she said.

To clue in local media, Deutsch forwarded documents provided by John M. Wallington, Director of Financial Services. They included copies of travel reimbursement requests submitted by Jessie, Alyson Satterwhite, Justin Wilk (Potomac), Shawn Brann, who was Acting-Brentsville representative, and himself. No one else had submitted thousands of dollars for reimbursement. And no one else submitted miles traveled within their own district.

The documents also included a statement saying that school board members in Fairfax, Loudoun, Stafford and Virginia Beach do not receive reimbursement for miles traveled within their own districts, though some can submit a record of mileage traveled.

The documents further showed that Jessie attended conferences for which the school division reimbursed her for her airfare, hotel costs, even tips to hotel employees. These conferences included a leadership conference held at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and The National Alliance of Black School Educators in New Orleans.

In a statement, Jessie defended participating in professional development and representing the district on boards to which she had been appointed.

But some board members felt she was too liberal in her various requests for reimbursements. Documents showed that she submitted for attending a funeral for a division employee.

“I’m going to vote no,” Satterwhite said “I don’t think this is right.”

Jessie made known that she felt personally attacked. “To my knowledge, I am the only one who has applied for travel…Now, if you are accusing me – my integrity is the only thing I have. You don’t mess with that…We should not feel guilty for applying for travel. You would owe me thousands of dollars for travel I have not taken.”

But Deutsch wanted to know what about the policy needed amending. “Why is the board revisiting something we visited unanimously back in the fall?” he asked.

In a phone interview with Bristow Beat, Deutsch said it was personal. “I don’t think members should be creating policies to help them benefit financially. As public stewards of the tax dollars, we should be careful as to what we are taking in reimbursements.”

But Jessie’s reimbursements also tell another story. Should school board members receive compensation for the money they occur visiting various schools when costs quickly add up? And can they not attend conferences when school employees often do on the taxpayers’ dime?

School board salaries are $12,000 and $13,100 for chair. They have not increased in 19 years. However, this year, the board voted to give themselves- or the new board members-  a big raise,  $26K+ and nearly $29K for chair (the vote was tied 4:4.)

Deutsch believes that the raise will be sufficient. He said he is not one of the high-earners on the board, and yet he accepts that local travel is part of his responsibility.

“We’re not in this position to expect to get rich as a result; we do this to serve the public,” he said.

Justin Wilk of the Potomac District told Bristow Beat he would not support any amendments to the current policy as he finds to be sufficient.

“I support what we voted [earlier this school year]. I personally do not believe we should be reimbursed for visiting schools in our own district. I just feel that it is part of my job that I was elected to do,” Wilk said.

Brentsville representative Gil Trenum said he interprets local travel as the same as driving to one’s job, thus no reimbursement is needed.

At the meeting,  a suggestion was made that perhaps school board members could be reimbursed as school employees. However, the school board attorney pointed out that employees seek approval from their supervisors or principals.

Chairman Barbur Lateef, the school board tabled the amendment until a time when he said they could bring a “clean” amendment back for approval.

Jessie responded in detail in a letter to the editor.

*Travel expenses here are only “mileage” but documents showed requests for other types of reimbursements. Jessie’s mileage averages to $188 per month.

© 2019, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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