School board emails about Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart's London travel plans answer some questions and raise new ones.
They show Ellis-Stewart was initially concerned that the budget for Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board travel wouldn't cover the $4,800 bill, but signed up anyway. They show the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the trip, spent weeks trying to get the money -- and that Ellis-Stewart told them a check was coming, even though CMS staff now say no check was sent.
The emails show chamber staff urging Ellis-Stewart to consult Eric Davis, her predecessor as chair, on ways to find the money. They show Davis urging newly-hired Superintendent Heath Morrison to attend, and they show Ellis-Stewart waiting for word on whether Davis would transfer his unspent money to her. At roughly the same time, they show Davis requesting a report on all members' travel spending and informing two colleagues that he denied Ellis-Stewart's request.
I requested the emails on May 21, two days after Ellis-Stewart and about 80 other community leaders boarded a plane that was delayed for hours by mechanical problems, leading the chamber to cancel the trip. CMS provided them Monday at no charge, after telling me originally it would cost $855 for retrieval.
You can read them here, but there's a lot of repetition and it can be hard to sort out the chronology. The request was only for emails sent and received in May, but they include replies to prior communications, giving a fuller picture of the discussion.
The emails start with a Feb. 29 reminder from the chamber that the trip is filling up fast, urging those who are interested to register by the March 5 deadline.
"I am not sure how this will fit into the district's budget," Ellis-Stewart emailed Natalie English, the chamber's vice president for public policy, that day.
"Have you thought about talking to Eric about it?" English replied the next day. "He went last year and found it very valuable. He might have some thoughts about how you could make it work."
Marilyn Monson, the chamber staffer handling the trip's logistics, let Ellis-Stewart know the chamber offered a $200 discount on the $5,000 trip for public officials.
"I am interested, but am not sure if the district's budget will support the expense," Ellis-Stewart replied on March 1.
Nothing in the emails provided shows how Ellis-Stewart resolved that question. But a series of emails in March between Ellis-Stewart and Monson show Monson trying to get Ellis-Stewart's registration and check, while Ellis-Stewart says she needs an invoice from the chamber to get payment.
On April 20, the day after the school board picked Heath Morrison as its next superintendent, Davis emailed English to ask for information on the London trip. He received an electronic brochure later that day and forwarded it to Morrison.
"Heath, if possible this would be well worth your time to go on this trip, meet business and community leaders, etc. I believe that Ericka is going," Davis wrote.
The email does not discuss the cost of the trip or how it would be paid for. Davis said in an interview he never heard back from Morrison about the trip.
A series of emails sent the morning of May 15 chronicle an exchange between board clerk Judith Whittington and Ellis-Stewart about the travel budget.
"Transfers to your travel budget are: $1,000 from Richard (McElrath) and $800 from Amelia (Stinson-Wesley). Am I missing any?" Whittington asked.
"Potentially, Eric Davis. Waiting to hear back from him," Ellis-Stewart answers.
Whittington then informed Ellis-Stewart that a board member had requested "an updated travel report" and she wanted to make sure she had the latest information. "Report will be coming to you, as well as other board members, shortly," Whittington added.
"Who made the request?" Ellis-Stewart asked.
"Eric asked for updated travel report," Whittington replied.
That afternoon, the chamber's Monson emailed Ellis-Stewart to ask about payment: "Hi Ericka, sorry to bother you, but we still have not received your check for the trip to London. Would you please check into this for me?"
"The check has been cut and (CMS Chief Financial Officer) Sheila Shirley will be sending it over," Ellis-Stewart replied.
When the Observer asked for confirmation this week, CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte replied: "Please contact Ericka about the email she sent to the Chamber. We can confirm that no check was sent to the Chamber from the district." Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday that it was her understanding that CMS had cut a check in late April or early May.
On May 16, there was a brief exchange of emails between Davis, Tim Morgan and Rhonda Lennon.
"I declined Ericka's request to transfer travel $s," Davis told the other two.
"I have not been asked," Morgan replied.
"nor have I," added Lennon.
On May 18, the day before the London flight was supposed to depart, Davis emailed interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh with the subject line "London."
"Any Board members going?" Davis asked.
"Eric, BOE chair is apparently leaving Saturday afternoon for London," Hattabaugh replied.
“I have received this type of request in the past, which I have always declined as I think each board member should be responsible for making good financial decisions regarding their travel and the use of taxpayer money,” Lennon wrote.
While most board members' emails were limited to bare-bones information, Stinson-Wesley, the board's newest member, proved the exception. After the trip was cancelled and questions about travel spending were being aired, Stinson-Wesley sent her colleagues a 13-paragraph email May 25 sharing thoughts and questions about allotments of travel money and talking time at school board meetings. She asked what happened to unspent travel money and how freely board members should share their individual allotments.
Stinson-Wesley said she didn't mind sharing some of hers but would like to get travel reports in return. She even suggested using closed meetings to share reports -- something that would not pass muster with the N.C. open meetings law, which limits closed meetings to a few confidential purposes.
The only response to Stinson-Wesley included in the emails provided by CMS is one sentence from Vice Chairman Mary McCray: "Judy (Whittington, the board clerk) can address your concerns with the allotment of money, so speak with her."
Elllis-Stewart has said that board members will likely discuss travel budgets at a future retreat.