Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mountain State University president is frequent flier at school's expense

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountain State University President Charles H. Polk has repeatedly used the university's two private airplanes to jet to an airport near his North Carolina home, and visit his hometown in Texas on the university's dime, according to interviews and flight records.

Since 2007, Polk has made more than 100 flights to and from the Statesville Regional Airport in North Carolina -- an airport about 20 minutes away from Polk's Mooresville, N.C., house, Federal Aviation Administration records show

Polk has also used one of the university planes to make at least 18 flights to and from his hometown in Lufkin, Texas, where his mother still lives, according to flight records.

On Wednesday, Polk denied taking hundreds of flights on the university jet and said all the flights to Texas and North Carolina were for university business.

Polk did tell the Gazette he used MSU's smaller airplane to fly to his house in North Carolina.

The flights to North Carolina have cost MSU, which is reeling from serious accreditation problems, tens of thousands of dollars each year and at least $170,000 since 2007.

The Texas flights have cost the university more than $62,000.

The cost estimates are based on per-hour cost figures provided to The Wall Street Journal by aviation consulting firm Conklin & de Decker Aviation.

Polk's flights to his hometown in Texas and to his house in North Carolina were just a fraction of the hundreds of flights made on the university jet since January of 2007.

There were also 236 flights made to and from Beckley, where MSU's main campus is located. There were also 68 flights to and from Martinsburg, where MSU has a branch campus and more than 20 flights to and from Orlando, Fla., the site of another branch campus.

Polk is one of the most highly compensated university presidents in the country, earning more than $1.8 million in total compensation in 2009, according to a form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

MSU's two airplanes

Mountain State University purchased its 1974 Cessna 500 jet in 2001, according to FAA licensing records.

In an interview with the Gazette on Wednesday, Polk said MSU's board of trustees approved the purchase of the plane because MSU was "making a very strong commitment as a university to transcend the boundaries of West Virginia and be able to work the market share in other places."

MSU paid between $1 million and $1.5 million for the Cessna jet, said Polk, which he says the school received at a discounted rate.

The jet can hold seven passengers and is used to fly university faculty and staff to satellite campuses around the country, Polk said. The purpose of the plane is to save money on travel costs like hotels and dinners that would eat into the university budget, he said.

In addition to the university jet, MSU purchased a 2002 single-engine Cirrus Design Corp SR22 airplane in 2009 for about $200,000, Polk said.

The school decided to purchase a second airplane as "a more cost effective way to shuffle people back and forth between campuses than if we used the Cessna jet," according to Polk.

No public universities in West Virginia own private aircraft, said the Higher Education Policy Commission.

WVU leases a jet from an aviation company but does not own an airplane independently, said John Bolt, director of communications for WVU.

From July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, WVU's leased plane made 127 individual flights, Bolt said. WVU President Jim Clements was on 68 of those flights.

"The plane's not used all that often," Bolt said. "The president or vice president uses it for travel to Charleston to go there for a meeting, but we just lease it when we have the need."

Flights to North Carolina

Since August, Polk has made 10 flights to and from the North Carolina airport near his home, according to the most recent FAA records.

"I can't tell you what the purpose of these flights are because I don't keep a record of that," Polk said on Wednesday. "Specifically, I can't address those flights."

All of MSU's flights are expensed to the university's operational budget, which is about $55 million this year, Polk said.

He said that while he does not personally keep track of the number of flights he takes, the plane's pilot, David Robbins, maintains detailed flight logs and passenger lists. Robbins is also the Director of Aviation at Mountain State's flight schools.

Polk denied taking more than 100 flights to Statesville, N.C., on the Cessna 500 jet, saying the FAA flight records logging those trips were in error. The FAA tracks the flights based on each aircraft's unique tail number.

He did say that he uses MSU's other plane, the Cirrus Design Corp SR22, to often fly to and from his North Carolina home -- an arrangement Polk said was approved by MSU's trustees.

"When we purchased the small plane, one of the reasons was so I could get to the campus much better," Polk said. "The Board of Trustees decided that the way to keep me here for much more time and cut down on travel time was to use the plane rather than drive three or four hours."

Polk purchased his home in Mooresville, N.C., for $395,000 in 2000, according to housing records. The residence is now worth $457,000.

That property is in addition to another 12-acre piece of land Polk purchased in 2008 worth more than $101,000, according to housing records. Polk said he hopes to build another home on the 12-acre lot in the future.

While Polk is given the option of living in the presidential accommodations on MSU's Beckley campus, Polk says he calls his Mooresville property home. Both Polk's wife and daughter live in North Carolina.

'A business purpose'

Roslyn Artis, executive vice president at MSU, said that staff and faculty at Mountain State do not have a "blank check" to charter the university planes for either personal or business use. She said the president's office must approve flights made on the jet and that the school tries to conserve costs whenever possible.

"If I'm going to take a team to Martinsburg and there are only two people are going to make that trip, that plane doesn't get off the ground," Artis said Wednesday. "We try to be cost efficient to fill that plane. All of our budget expenditures have to be justified."

While neither Polk nor Artis could personally provide the Gazette with records or details about all the flights made on both of the university planes, Polk said "every flight that was made has a business purpose."

Mountain State University has one of its four branch campuses in Mooresville, N.C., and conducts business in Texas, Polk said.

In addition to its main campus in Beckley, MSU maintains branch campuses in Martinsburg, Center Township, Pa., Mooresville, N.C., and Orlando, Fla., according to MSU's website. Programs are also offered at sites throughout West Virginia; in Hickory, N.C., and online.

MSU's Mooresville campus began offering classes in the fall of 2009 in a building about 15 minutes from Polk's home. The school leases half of the second floor and the entire third floor from a construction management and general contracting firm called Spectrum, said property owner Charlie Caputo.

The Mooresville campus has three full-time faculty members and enrolled 43 students this year, said MSU spokesman Andy Wessels.

Polk, however, has been taking the university jet to the Statesville, N.C., airport since at least February of 2007 -- two years before MSU officially opened up a Mooresville branch of the school.

Artis said it takes time to organize the launch of a new campus and that MSU had to "identify a space, had to train staff and interview and hire faculty -- all things that began "long before" the school begins enrolling students.

Polk has also used the university jet to fly to his hometown of Lufkin, Texas, in Angelina County. Birth records show that Polk was born on July 11, 1942, in Lufkin.

Since 2007, Polk has made at least 14 flights on the university jet to the Angelina County Texas Airport in Lufkin, the city where his mother still lives.

Polk said the flights to Lufkin have been for business purposes because MSU has employees in Texas and relationships with police and firefighters in Houston and Austin. MSU also holds graduations for students in Texas who take online leadership classes from MSU, he said.

Polk said MSU's planes land in Lufkin when MSU has business in Texas because the Angelina County airport has "cheap gas and no landing fee." 

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