Schools chief collects car stipend years after it was stripped

Georgia’s schools chief has been collecting a state car allowance worth more than $7,000 a year even though the state stopped offering the allowance to officials several years before he took office.

In addition, records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show that state Schools Superintendent John Barge in 2012 regularly billed drives to and from his home in northwest Georgia as business travel. That’s a practice the state’s top accountant said is “inconsistent with IRS guidelines.”

In an interview with the AJC Wednesday, Barge said he was unaware that state budget officials had eliminated the vehicle allowance, which adds $587 a month to his state paycheck of more than $130,000 a year. He said his predecessors Kathy Cox and Brad Bryant received the stipend, which he believed to be “part of the superintendent’s salary package.”

“Our folks thought we were doing exactly as we were being guided to do,” said Barge, whose aides met Wednesday with state officials to discuss travel policy after the AJC inquired about the payments. “We’re not trying to defraud anybody of anything.”

However, records show that Barge’s staff was informed in November 2011 that he couldn’t claim the motor vehicle allowance because it was “discontinued in fiscal year 2006.” In the memo, obtained through an open records request, former state budget chief Debbie Dlugolenski Alford suggested that Barge take the matter to the State Board of Education.

At that point, state education officials began to craft an internal travel policy for the superintendent. At one point, they sought to have Barge’s home in Kingston, Ga. — 60 miles northwest of Atlanta — designated as a state Department of Education office so he could collect mileage on trips he made from there.

Barge isn’t directly reimbursed for the miles he logs. His annual stipend represents the equivalent of 14,000 miles, and at the end of the year, if he hasn’t traveled 14,000 miles, then he must pay the difference to the state or keep the money and pay taxes on it.

Barge told the AJC he repaid $319.67 for the unused portion of his travel allowance and has instructed his aides to review the office’s policy.

There’s still the related issue of whether he improperly counted trips he made from his home. The records show that the superintendent has logged thousands of miles in trips from Kingston to events in metro Atlanta since taking office in January 2011. That includes a 102-mile trip to a downtown Atlanta event and a 120-mile trek to Gov. Nathan Deal’s Buckhead mansion. His staff said he claimed those miles because he didn’t come to the office those days.

In some cases, starting his trips from his Kingston home may have saved taxpayer dollars. It’s made for shorter jaunts to visits to schools in northwest Georgia towns such as Rome, Ellijay and Dalton. In many others, though, logging mileage from Kingston to metro Atlanta and beyond has helped boost his total tally.

Barge said he sought approval to report travel that originated at his home because in 2012 he increasingly worked there to care for his ailing wife. The travel policy drafted by his office would have established his house as his “headquarters for the day in which the superintendent is not intending to commute to the Atlanta office but is working on state business.”

State Accounting Officer Alan Skelton last month rejected Barge’s proposal, saying that defining a house as a “home office” conflicts with IRS guidelines. An independent tax expert agreed with his assessment.

“If he leaves from home and goes somewhere for work, that’s commuting. And you can’t claim commuting mileage. Not legitimately, at least,” said Bill Nemeth, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Enrolled Agents. “He shouldn’t be doing it, and under audit he wouldn’t be doing it.”

Barge said he stopped billing for such trips after Skelton’s letter.

Only one other state constitutional officer continues to receive the motor vehicle allowance. Secretary of State Brian Kemp was granted a waiver on the allowance because he had filled the unexpired term of Karen Handel, who was grandfathered in when the state policy was changed. Other constitutional officers either have assigned state vehicles or bill the state 51 cents a mile.

Barge, though, is required by law to travel more than many other state officials. State law directs the superintendent to travel to Georgia schools as “often as possible,” and since he doesn’t have an assigned state car, he crisscrosses the state in his 2011 Subaru Outback.

On Wednesday, Barge said his aides were trying all along to adhere to state travel policy, which he said “absolutely” needs to be clearer.

“I think our staff got some mixed signals,” he said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.