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Taken for a ride

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By The Staff

Perk (noun) - A benefit given to an employee in addition to a salary, for example, the use of a car or membership in a club.

A "perk."

That's how Marion County Superintendent Donald Smith initially described his use of a board-owned vehicle to make the 56-mile round trip drive from his home in Harrodsburg to Marion County and back each day for work.

That "perk" also included filling the tank with the school district's gas at the bus garage.

And it's a perk that the Marion County Board of Education approved, according to Board Chairwoman Sr. Kay Carlew.

At least, it was a perk that the board had approved for Smith until the editorial staff at the Enterprise questioned it last week.

You see, we were having a hard time understanding and, to be honest, accepting this "perk" for a number of reasons.

For starters, it isn't in line with Smith's contract, which reads:

The Board shall pay or reimburse the Superintendent for reasonable expenses incurred in the performance of the duties of the Superintendent, including professional travel in an amount not to exceed the amount actually incurred consistent with Board policy. The Superintendent shall be provided a Board-owned vehicle for business use within the state. If it is necessary for the Superintendent to use his personal automobile in connection with his duties, the Board shall reimburse the Superintendent for such use at the rate adopted by the Board for travel reimbursement of employees.

Driving to and from work does not fit in our definition of "professional travel." It's something every one of us who works has to do each day. But, according to Smith, when he leaves his house at seven in the morning, and goes home in the afternoon, his time on the road is part of his workday.

To be frank, that's bogus.

Assuming classes begin at 8:30 each morning, teachers are expected to be in their classrooms ready to teach at that time. If a teacher left home at 8:30, he or she would be considered late for work. Teachers don't get credit for the time they spend on the road as part of their workday, and neither should the superintendent.

We'll grant that Smith's actual hours are more flexible than classroom teachers and classified employees in the district, but his time traveling to and from the office is not and should not be considered "working."

Smith's workday begins when he arrives at the Board of Education, plain and simple, not when he pulls out of his driveway in the morning.

His use of the board-owned vehicle oversteps the bounds of his contract. But our concern goes beyond that.

We are more troubled by the message that it sends to the employees of the school district and the community at-large - the same people that are paying for Smith's use of the board-owned 2004 Ford Expedition full of gas. In case you're wondering, according to the EPA estimates, that vehicle gets about 14 miles per gallon.

To be clear, we have no problem with Smith or any school employee using a district-owned vehicle for professional reasons, such as when Smith attended a conference in Frankfort earlier this week, but getting to and from work is the responsibility of all employees, whether they are teachers, custodians or central office staff.

However, the taxpayers of Marion County aren't just paying for the vehicle, which the district may need, they are also paying for the gas to fuel that vehicle and the accumulated costs of the wear and tear on the vehicle.

The board of education cut staff positions and programs, citing budgetary constraints, when preparing its 2009-10 budget, yet the board approved paying for Smith to get to and from work each day.

Last week, Smith didn't see a problem with that.

"The district has seen how hard I'm working and I'm saving money in different areas and doing things and that was a perk that they have agreed to let me have," he said in an interview last week. "You get some perks, and some perks you don't get. And that is one of the ones they have given me."

Also last week, Board Chairwoman Sr. Kay Carlew said that the board approved Smith's use of the vehicle. Initially, she did not elaborate on how or why that decision was made, but she did say she planned to discuss the issue further with the board at its September meeting "to get further clarification."

Apparently, Carlew discussed the issue with the board members during the weekend, calling each of them individually, and she called the Enterprise Monday morning to tell us that the board had changed its tune regarding Smith's use of the board-owned vehicle.

"When we agreed to let him use the vehicle, we weren't even thinking about using taxpayers money and the possible abuse of that," Carlew said when she called the Enterprise Monday morning.

Setting aside our concern about whether the phone calls constituted a "serial meeting" under the open meetings law, we are glad that the board members now agree that Smith should no longer be allowed to drive the board-owned vehicle to and from home.

He will still be allowed to use the vehicle for professional purposes, and we'll reiterate that we have no problem with that.

With regard to Carlew's comment about the board not "thinking about using taxpayers money" when they agreed to let Smith use the vehicle for personal use, we find that extremely uncharacteristic of the board. In the past, we have found the board to be conscientious about how and why it is spending the school district's funds.

May this experience be a reminder of whose funds the school board is spending, and how the board should always keep that in the forefront of their minds when making financial decisions, regardless of how insignificant they may seem at the time.

We hope that this has been a lesson for the school board, and in the near future, we encourage the board to better define what is considered "business use" of district vehicles. This is important for Smith and other district employees who may have a reason to use those vehicles from time to time.

Likewise, we also hope that when the housing market improves and Smith and his family are able to sell their home in Harrodsburg, that he and his family make a home in Marion County - the community in which he is now considered a leader.