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Board should answer call for a cellular phone policy

"Call the Tune" by Mike Anthony

When will Mehlville School District administrators and Board of Education members get their priorities right and focus on issues that need to be addressed?

For example, Mehlville School District administrators plan to submit a recommendation by February to the Board of Education regarding all hiring policies — including the district's nepotism policy. Board President Cindy Christopher this summer asked administrators to review the district's hiring polices, particularly the nepotism policy, contending the current one is "extremely stringent.''

What a waste of time and energy.

Instead of gutting an excellent policy that was formulated 10 years ago with the aid of a blue-ribbon panel of residents, why don't they focus on an issue that really needs attention such as a cellular phone policy?

What's shocking is that no specific policy currently exists relating to reimbursement for or providing such telephones to district employees, particularly when the district spent a total of $26,474.10 for cell phone usage the 2002-2003 school year.

Former Board of Education member Dan Fowler recently paid nearly $200 to the Mehlville School District for copies of invoices and documents that would show how much district employees had been reimbursed for cell phone usage during the past academic year.

The information Mr. Fowler received clearly demonstrates a need for such a policy.

From what we can see, no uniform requirements exist on what type of documentation has to be submitted for reimbursement nor do any guidelines exist to determine who receives a cell phone or who will be reimbursed for using their own cell phone.

Where is the the district leadership on this issue?

Superintendent Tim Ricker certainly should be aware of the need for such a policy.

When Dr. Ricker was an associate superintendent for the Francis Howell School District, a state audit of that district contained many, many recommendations relating to Francis Howell's fiscal practices, including cellular phone usage.

The state audit report recommended that the Francis Howell Board of Education "establish a policy for cellular phone and pager usage stating the individuals authorized to be assigned a phone or pager, and allowable use of the phones and pagers. All billings should be reviewed for reasonableness and the board should ensure cell phones are used only for district business.''

Despite the recommendation made by the State Auditor's Office to the Francis Howell School District, Dr. Ricker contends that despite the lack of a policy here, the Mehlville School District has internal checks and balances that monitor cell phone reimbursements.

But after examining the records provided to Mr. Fowler, we don't believe that's the case. In fact, we would question the need for some of the cellular phone reimbursements the district has made to employees.

Consider the case of Randy Charles, assistant superintendent for finance and the district's chief financial officer, who was reimbursed $859.87 during the 2002-2003 academic year for cell phones.

Frankly, we don't understand his justification for not using the district's cell phone provider and wonder why he needs a cell phone for his district duties.

Though the school district's provider is Cingular Wireless, Mr. Charles contends that the Cingular service does not work well in his bottom floor office in the Administration Building.

Doesn't Mr. Charles have a telephone with a land line in his office?

But it gets better.

Consider the explanation Mr. Charles gave to the Call's Alyson E. Raletz about why he didn't deem it necessary to provide itemized statements when seeking reimbursement for cellular phone usage.

The records provided to Mr. Fowler supplied all 12 monthly statements from Mr. Charles' Sprint PCS Wireless phone, but not one of those statements included a complete itemized list of outgoing or incoming calls. Mr. Charles contended that because the district was reimbursing him for his personal Sprint cell phone, he did not need to include itemized statements.

"I pay my bill and the district reimbursed me, so I don't need to include it all in there. The ones you see all the detail are on the Cingular bills,'' he told the Call.

Mr. Charles' explanation doesn't inspire confidence in what Dr. Ricker asserts are adequate internal checks and balances, but clearly demonstrates the need for a definitive policy outlining which employees are authorized to use district cell phones and delineating specific documentation that must accompany reimbursement requests for the use of personal cell phones.

Given the grim funding outlook that looms for public education, we urge the administration and Board of Education to seize this opportunity to demonstrate fiscal accountability to the district's taxpayers.

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