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Nancy Smith

$100 a Meeting for Elected School Board Part-Timers? Yes

April 10, 2011 - 6:00pm

You had to know the buzz over Steve Wises bill to discontinue part-time school board members salaries would grow into something akin to a blast from a South African vuvuzela.

The Republican state senator from Jacksonville woke up a number of very-comfortable-thank-you public trough-feeders when he introduced SB 7234.

If the bill passes as is, the state will pay the next crop of school board members $100 per meeting, capped at $2,400 per year, plus travel reimbursement.

Personally, I love it. And I don't know why Florida didn't go this route a long time ago.

Wise is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. SB 7234 is near and dear to his heart, so its no surprise he makes a strong case. And he starts with this: However subpar Florida education might be in other areas, in heft of school board members salaries, it's No. 1 nationwide.

Thats right, no state is more generous to its part-time school boards. During the 2009-2010 budget year, the average school board member in Florida made $30,850 plus benefits.

School board members are paid based on the size of their districts. The largest is Broward County -- a district, incidentally, now charged with mismanagement and reckless spending. It pays its members $39,000; smallest is Liberty County, where members get $22,000.

Think about the cost. Salary is only part of it. The perks, which add an average $11,000 to the salary, include the pension payment, the car allowance, sometimes even a mystery supplies allowance and, of course, the fat health insurance package.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the nation, two-thirds of the school districts pay their school board members nothing. Not one dime. Nada. Going up from there, according to the National School Boards Association, fewer than 2 percent of all U.S. school districts pay board members more than $20,000. And in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Boston -- think of any large city with an oyster-house menu of complex problems, top to bottom -- you still won't find a school board member paid more than in Florida.

Money doesn't make a school board member a better public servant or a better steward of our children's classrooms. As well as board members are paid, I've never talked to a single teacher who told me his or her school board members are at the school regularly, or are participating in more than an end-of-the-year awards ceremony.

Some school board members do a fine job. They come to meetings prepared. They have something valuable to offer every meeting they attend. They take a helpful interest in the classroom.

But, let's be honest, other members -- and we all know more than one of them -- ran for the office because of the salary and benefits. Period. They figure they have to give up, what, a couple of nights a month, maybe another on a special occasion now and again? Even then, they find a way to have imperfect attendance.

Some years ago when Frank Brogan, now chancellor of the state university system of Florida, was running for commissioner of education, I asked him if he thought candidates who campaign on the promise of being "your full-time school board member" should get preference over school board candidates with full-time jobs. He said, absolutely not. As well as I can remember that long-ago conversation, Brogan said this: "You really want the person who is engaged in the community, who can give you some time but not so much time he's interfering in the school system's day-to-day business or developing a system of cronies or delivering the wrong signals to staff."

I've lived in places where elected school board members are paid nothing. Maybe you have, too, and you'll know what I mean. I can assure you, those districts ran competently and in the sunshine. Their members worked just as hard, cared just as much, were just as qualified as any paid school board member I've ever known in Florida. How much time a board member devotes to doing his before-meeting homework never depends on how much the board position pays.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, gives three reasons for opposing Wises bill. Here's what he says:

  1. Florida districts are larger than in most other states; for instance,Texas has 1,000 of them.
  2. It's singling out one group of constitutionally elected officers who are part-time and not singling out other constitutional officers and we think it's not fair to do that.
  3. slashing school board member salaries would diminish the existence of minorities on school boards, and school boards would eventually give way to special interests."

Wayne's a good man, but two out of three of these statements are weak arguments.

First, school board districts now are divided along county lines. They don't have to be. Larger districts could be split, or more members could be added to them. Florida could have 1,000 districts, too (not that I would recommend it); $100 per meeting still would be cheaper than our current payroll.

Second, it's a little disconcerting, it seems to me, to cast minorities as incapable of civic pride or duty unless there's money at the end of it. And what's this about special interests? The seats still would be decided by an election.

Third, I agree completely that one group of constitutionally elected part-time officers shouldn't be singled out for salary adjustment. But neither should that be a reason to scrap SB 7234. We have to begin somewhere to stick a pin in that bloated government payroll and hurt as few people as possible in the process -- this is the bill and this is the time. It's here now. Even without a companion bill in the House, Wise is convinced it needn't be a problem.

Paying school board members $100 per meeting instead of the salaries they now earn would cost the state $900,000. But it would put $11 million back into the education budget -- money for the classroom, money for students. You may call it only a drop in the bucket, I call it a healthy start.

We begin with SB 7234 this session and next session move on to curb part-time salaries on all levels of government, from city councils and county commissions to the state Legislature. Let's get going on a bill like that.

Columnist Nancy Smith can be reached at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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