The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce spent weeks trying to collect payment for a trip to London from school board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who had less than half the $4,800 she needed, newly released emails show.
Four days before the planned May 19 departure, Ellis-Stewart emailed a chamber staffer to say, “The check has been cut and (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Chief Financial Officer) Sheila Shirley will send it over.” But when the Observer asked CMS this week to confirm whether that check was cut and delivered, spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said “no check was sent to the Chamber from the district.”
Ellis-Stewart was among about 80 business, civic and political leaders who boarded a plane for a five-day London trip, part of a series of visits the chamber sponsors annually to check out economic development, tourism and government in other cities. That trip was canceled after airplane mechanical problems delayed the departure by hours.
Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday that her understanding was that CMS had cut a check for the trip in late April or early May, and that board member Richard McElrath was going to contribute additional unspent travel money from his budget to help cover the cost.
“It has been customary over the years for the superintendent and the board chair and in some cases other board members to attend the chamber trip,” she said. “It is my understanding that the relationships formed here have benefited the district in a number of ways.”
On May 21, the Observer requested emails related to the trip and school board travel spending. CMS provided them on Monday.
The nine-member board’s $30,000 travel account is a small item in a budget that tops $1 billion a year. But it packs a symbolic punch, especially during tight budget years.
The board members’ emails, most of them quite brief, hint at confusion over travel spending and at tension on the board, which saw a change of leadership after the November 2011 election. Ellis-Stewart, elected to her first political office, was then chosen as chair by the board, displacing Eric Davis.
The board chair gets $5,150 a year in travel money, with other members getting $3,100. Ellis-Stewart’s half-year budget was $2,575, with a little more than $500 added from money that hadn’t been spent by departing board members. She spent most of that on two trips to Raleigh and a National School Boards Association conference in Boston.
Emails between Ellis-Stewart and chamber staff show she was initially concerned that her budget wouldn’t cover the London trip, which was more expensive than any of the chamber’s previous city tours. They do not reveal when or why she decided to sign up anyway.
Davis attended in past
The emails show that Davis, who participated in the chamber’s 2011 visit to Seattle, urged Heath Morrison to join the London trip immediately after Morrison was tapped to become CMS superintendent in April.
“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 emailed Morrison on April 20.
Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday that Davis had also told her that the annual chamber trips are “an excellent means to network with business leaders.”
The emails indicate Ellis-Stewart was hoping Davis would transfer unspent travel money to her account, which had only $284 left from her allotment for the budget year that ends June 30.
A tally emailed by board clerk Judith Whittington on May 15 said Ellis-Stewart had gotten $1,000 from Richard McElrath and $800 from Amelia Stinson-Wesley. That would have left her $2,700 short.
Ellis-Stewart emailed Whittington that there would “potentially” be a transfer from Davis.
The emails include no direct exchanges between Davis and Ellis-Stewart. But on May 16, Davis emailed board colleagues Rhonda Lennon and Tim Morgan, saying “I declined Ericka’s request to transfer travel $s.”
Davis said this week that he believed the trip would be a good chance for the new superintendent to make contacts. Because Morrison didn’t respond, there was no discussion of how to pay for Morrison, he said.
Davis said he didn’t transfer money to Ellis-Stewart because he believes members should “live within their means.”
“How we manage money in our travel budget says a lot about how we manage a budget,” Davis said.