It has been a sticking point for years. During budget season, as the school district are scrapping for money, some county commissioners and community activists get hung up on one certain expenditure: travel allowances for the superintendent and his administrators.
This year, the school board tacked an extra $725 to $825 onto the monthly pay for top administrators to cover their local travel, which includes near-daily school visits. This monthly lump sum is paid regardless of the miles traveled—in lieu of the administrators being reimbursed at 50 cents per mile for driving their personal cars on school business.
Even one member of the school board conceded this month that it was too much money for the employees, known as the Executive Leadership Team, or ELT.
"I just feel like I have to clear the air on the travel allowance issue," said school board member Leigh Bordley. "At $800 a month, that's 1,600 miles, which is 40 miles a day. If you drive from Riverside to Creekside, it's not 40 miles." (It's closer to 70 miles a day, not counting weekends.)
Earlier this month, the school board asked these top administrators, which include assistant superintendents and the district's chief academic officer, to take voluntary cuts. They relinquished 25 percent of their travel allowances for next year. That pacified some critics of the expenditures, but not County Commissioner Joe Bowser, one of the most vocal critics of the DPS travel allowances. "That doesn't impress me," Bowser said this week. "They should take that money and put it into teachers."
Commissioner Becky Heron also knocked the travel allowances. "They should have to account for that money," she said. "That's money in the pot."
Heron's criticisms don't stop at the schools. She's taken issue with the travel allowances for her own board. This year, each commissioner was offered $250 a month for in-county travel and $4,000 for training, such as conferences.
That's too much when other departments are facing cuts to their training budgets, she said.
"I think that since we put limits on travel for all staff, that unless it's really something that would be beneficial to you or Durham County, you should either pay for it yourself or stay home," she said.
Of Durham's commissioners, Heron has spent the least this year on training, attending a meeting last summer for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners at a cost of $549.36. Commissioner Brenda Howerton, who has been on the board a year and a half, has spent the most—$4,838.24— attending conferences for the National Association of Counties and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, a congressional breakfast and a conference on workforce development. She also attended workshops for the Harlem Children's Zone, a program on which the East Durham Children's Initiative is based.
In January, Bowser transferred $1,000 of his travel allowance to Howerton, since he wasn't using it. Allowances are transferable among commissioners.
(Bowser is the only commissioner who doesn't accept the $250 stipend. He chose not to receive it, he said. County records show he booked a county-owned vehicle once for an out-of-town conference. For other events, he has driven his personal car or ridden in a county-owned car with another commissioner or county employee.)
"I'm the newest kid on the block," Howerton said. "As a new commissioner, I'm doing what I think they voted me in to do—to be able to make the best decisions I can make."
It appears that in the coming year, commissioners could see their travel budgets shrink, with a proposal this week by the county manager that each commissioner get $3,500 in next year's training and travel budget. Commissioners are scheduled to adopt a budget at the end of June.