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How not to save money for building schools

A few months ago, at budget time, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spinmeisters painted a picture of a school system too economically devastated to go on without an infusion of millions more in taxpayer dollars. Whether that is the case or not, one has to wonder what mid-level CMS employees are doing flitting about town in high-end recreational vehicles that many of the taxpayers whose property taxes support the school system couldn't afford.

Last January, CMS purchased a fleet of 11 brand new Jeep Grand Cherokees at a cost to taxpayers of $235,000. The cars were then assigned to mid-level CMS employees. Among those assigned Jeeps, for which CMS paid $21,384 each, are Director of Maintenance Chip Irby, Shop Foreman David Epperson and Rusty Fuller, CMS' manager of custodial services.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James, the fiscal shark of the commission, which provides much of the funding for the school system, hit the roof when he learned about the Jeeps.

"Government has a responsibility to purchase automobiles that are basic transportation," said James. "If CMS thinks Jeep Grand Cherokees are basic transportation, then I question their judgment. It's a classic deal -- the school board and bureaucrats love to whine about the children, but when the time comes, they always seem to look out for themselves."

CMS officials say workers are assigned take-home vehicles if they are on call 24 hours a day or if their job requires them to drive directly from their homes to a work site without first going to a standard work location, among other reasons. But James claims he was given a different answer by CMS employees after he grilled them about the purpose for the vehicles.

"My sources at CMS they said they needed to buy the Jeep Cherokees so they could get to work during snowstorms, because of these massive snowstorms we have around here during the winter," said James.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board member John Lassiter says CMS staff essentially told him the same thing.

"Several months ago, Jeeps were used for inclement weather," Lassiter said.

County Commissioner Parks Helms says the proper time to quiz the school board about the Jeeps may have passed, since the county already approved the budget for the school system this spring.

"I think this is a policy decision that the Board of Education and the administration need to make and if I find that they have abused their discretion in respect to this, the time to deal with it is during the budget cycle," said Helms. "It's too late to deal with it once we have adopted the budget. I am perhaps unlike some other commissioners in that I don't want to second-guess the Board of Education or the superintendent or his staff unless I know that there is some obvious or legitimate wrongdoing and I don't know that that's the case here."

Quizzing the elected members of the school board about the purchase may be a dead end.

"The school system has a significant need for a wide variety of cars," said Lassiter. "The particulars of why a particular vehicle is chosen (by CMS staff) doesn't come down to board level."

Members of mid-level management at CMS aren't the only folks driving nice cars these days. While County Manager Harry Jones drives his own car to work and foots the bill for his gas, and Charlotte City Manager Pam Syfert somehow gets by on a $475 a month car allowance, the school system bought Superintendent Jim Pughsley a new, $20,400 Buick Century when he replaced outgoing Superintendent Eric Smith last year. CMS also reimburses Pughsley for gas, as the system does for the employees currently driving the Jeeps.

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