Chamber membership issue keeps money from schools

A disagreement between the Columbia County school system and the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce is at a stalemate.

Superintendent Charles Nagle said the conflict started last fall when Karen Chrjapin, the chamber's executive director, approached him about having the school board join the chamber as a paid member.

Though the school system and the chamber have had a strong relationship for years, Mr. Nagle said, the board never has joined the chamber as a paying member.

"I'm sort of a 'let's play by the rules' person," said Ms. Chrjapin, who became the chamber's executive director in March 2007. According to chamber by-laws, she said, "All members of the Chamber of Commerce shall pay dues, and that means no in-kind memberships."

However, school board attorney Pete Fletcher said state law prohibits the school system from using taxpayer money to join the chamber.

The school system and the chamber have worked together on a number of initiatives, including a Youth Leadership Program that the chamber sponsors for county high school students. The school system provides transportation for Youth Leadership field trips, and the chamber holds functions at the school board's building.

"We value our relationship with the schools. We want to be able to work with them. But we have by-laws and rules that we have to abide by as well," Ms. Chrjapin said.

She said she thought the membership issue had been resolved when a member of the chamber's board volunteered to pay the school system's $300 dues anonymously.

However, Mr. Fletcher said the system could accept donations only for educational purposes.

The controversy has spilled over into a $15,000 grant to the school system for career, technical and agriculture programs.

Though the school system has received $5,000 of the grant from the state Department of Social Services, it has not received the remaining $10,000 that is being donated by a chamber member.

"They turned down our $300 from a member, saying it would create an improper relationship, possibly," Ms. Chrjapin said.

If that donation is improper, she said, the $10,000 contribution is also.

"We want to give them the money. We're going to give them the money. We just want to work with them properly so no laws are broken," Ms. Chrjapin said.

Mr. Nagle said the school system could accept the grant because the funds would be used for educational purposes.

"It shocked us that the chamber would withhold that money that would go to students," he said.

The superintendent said he would like to meet with the chamber board of directors to try to resolve their differences.

"We're not going to change anything that we do with the chamber. We hope to maintain the same relationship," he said.

Reach Betsy Gilliland at (706) 868-1222, ext. 113, or betsy.gilliland@augustachronicle.com.