Trustee Talk Issue 4: Travel Policies to Avoid Overspending
I recently read an article from a local newspaper reporting that a board racked up nearly $110,000 in travel expenses over a two-year period. How do we avoid this kind of mistake? How do I provide guidance to my board on travel while still encouraging each member to participate in state and national meetings for trustee development, education, training and/or opportunities to advocate on behalf of the college and students?
While $110,000 certainly appears excessive, it is theoretically possible that such an expense may have been brought about by a rare opportunity that was judged exceptional and beneficial to the college, or by other unusual circumstances. For our purposes, however, we will assume that the expense was reported because it was deemed truly excessive and was neither warranted nor beneficial to the college. A mistake of this magnitude never should happen, as every college board should have explicit, detailed, and specific guidelines regarding what travel and other expenses are and are not acceptable. Nevertheless, one college's lack of oversight or one individual's lack of good judgment should not dissuade a governing board and the college from authorizing reasonable and beneficial trustee education. A common and good practice is for colleges to require trustees to follow the same spending protocols and guidelines as all college employees. It is also wise to have a budget line item for the board's travel and related expenses so that the president and all board members are aware of the amount of funds that have been put aside for board travel and attendance at state or national meetings.
The engagement of trustees in learning about community college governance and higher education is just as vital as encouraging faculty, staff, and students to participate in professional development opportunities. Trustees should be encouraged to participate in state and national meetings, as well as educational and training opportunities so they keep up to date with national trends and benefit from the exchange of good practices and ideas with other governing boards. Trustees provide an impartial and forceful voice when they represent and advocate for students and the college.
To avoid concerns about the public misconstruing travel expenses and to protect the goodwill efforts of trustees it is essential that boards determine what are reasonable travel and meeting reimbursable expenditures and put in place clear policies and spending protocols. An annual review of the past year's expenditures and the current year's budget is a good practice.
Policies for Reimbursable Expenses
Boards need to determine what is best for their respective colleges and establish transparent and fair reimbursement policies to compensate trustees for a reasonable amount of travel undertaken for the benefit of the college. Unlike the corporate world where opportunities for board development and engagement are common practice, there may be some reluctance in the community college sector to use an institution's tax-supported funds for the same purpose. It is the board's responsibility to establish clear policies, monitor their own behavior, and set rigorous guidelines for trustees. Trustees should be required to follow the same travel and business meeting expense policies and procedures established for college employees. The policies on reimbursable expenses should address major travel costs such as airfare, vehicle mileage, meals, and lodging. Additionally, the policies should explain the approval process for reimbursement, definitions of gratuities (i.e., allowable percentage to tip), and necessary documentation. Reimbursement documentation usually includes destination, dates, and the purpose of travel with written receipts. Any questions that are likely to arise in regard to reimbursement should be proactively addressed in a travel and meeting guidance manual with copies provided to every member of the board, as well as the professional board staff and the college president. This manual should address the exceptions that may occur to the general reimbursement policies established by the board. Examples include:
- What happens when a trustee is unable to attend an event because of reasons beyond his or her control? Who is responsible for expenses incurred?
- How should expenses be handled when a trustee travels with a spouse or other family members?
- Do individual trustees have the independent authority to set up meetings with local and state stakeholders and request reimbursement for travel and meals for themselves and others?
The board should establish ceilings for maximum levels of travel reimbursement. For example, mileage expenses for the use of personal vehicles should be charged at the rate set by the college, the state, or federal government, and not exceed the cost of economy airfare to the same destination. In addition, if the allocation for mileage and/or fuel costs exceeds the cost of airfare, then the trustee will only be reimbursed for the lesser of the two options regardless of his or her chosen means of transportation.
Generally Non-Reimbursable Expenses
The board should also detail in its policies what travel and meeting expenses will not be reimbursed by the college. The following travel expenses are generally considered ineligible for reimbursement:
- Housing or travel costs incurred from extending travel for sightseeing or other personal reasons
- Alcoholic beverages
- Entertainment expenses
- Any expenses incurred by a trustee's spouse, significant other, or other family members
How the Board Should Protect Itself
How should a board take action to proactively prevent controversy over travel expenses and other expenditures? An imbalance can arise when trustees have too much flexibility with their selection of conferences and meeting opportunities, or when policies are ambiguous or not sufficiently specific. The most fail-safe policy is for the full board always to collectively approve or deny requests for trustees' travel, whether it is for educational or advocacy-related purposes. Others consider this to be part of the chair's responsibilities and leave it to his/her discretion in consultation with the president. Another practice is to have the president and his or her staff make sure each trustee is following appropriate travel policies. Additionally, upon returning trustees should be expected to share materials from the meetings or conferences attended and share what they learned and other outcomes with the board.
Some trustees believe that no college funds should be used for any travel expenditures and that trustees should be required to pay their own way. Others view travel as an opportunity and want to take advantage of every chance to travel for personal fulfillment. Responsible and competent trustees consider travel opportunities when the travel will yield benefits for and improve college governance. The board needs to be vigilant about varying perspectives and balance them so that trustees will be empowered to travel when necessary but not risk exploiting resources.
Trustees dedicate countless hours of their time to improving their institutions while making difficult decisions in their role as trustees. Exposure to learning and development opportunities can aid trustees in addressing the challenges before them. During ACCT's educational and advocacy events, we are always impressed at trustees' dedication to acquiring new knowledge and promoting the importance of their colleges. During last October's ACCT Leadership Congress, trustees submitted nearly 2,500 evaluations for the 100 concurrent sessions that were presented during the event. This is evidence that when trustees travel to our national conference, they both attend educational sessions and engage in dialogue about what they learn. There is no need to deny these important learning opportunities for fear of public backlash over expenditures as long as the board sets and adheres to clear policies.
Whatever specific decisions are made by the board on reimbursement, they must be set out in written policies to avoid confusion and unnecessary miscommunications that may cause friction among board members and the administration or undue criticism from the public and local press. It is as important to clearly define what is an appropriate reimbursable expense as what is not. When this is done adequately, there is no reason to question why trustee travel is justifiable or to fear abuses of travel allowances.
Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice.
Do YOU have a Question for us? Email your question to: Norma Goldstein