Flagler County School Board members are paid $30,331 a year each for their service, close to the state average for school board members. Overall, Florida pays the state’s 355 school board members $10.9 million a year, not including about $5,000 a year per retired school board member.
A bill in the Florida Senate proposes to eliminate board members’ salaries and benefits, replacing both with a stipend of $100 per meeting. Retirement benefits would be eliminated, reducing state spending on school board members to $900,000. Travel expenses would not be: board members could still be reimbursed for mileage or other approved travel. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Wise, the Jacksonville Republican, is being heard in the Pre-K-12 Education Committee today. Wise chairs that committee.
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“Let me say this and I hope it’s printed,” Wise said. “We are number one in something in Florida—salaries of school board members.”
The proposal drew a variety of reactions from present and past school board members in Flagler County, some of whom felt there was no way they could come off looking good on the issue, if they were to defend their salaries, given the populist pressures against government employees of any sort these days—elected officials especially.
Some of Flagler’s current and former board members see it as retaliation for local boards’ public criticism of a slew of legislation in recent years that’s shifted financial burdens to local school districts. Some see it as leading to a lesser varied brand of school board members, if working parents can no longer serve. “School board members are getting shot at at public meetings,” one said, “you see some of the vitriol spewed at public meetings. Who wants to volunteer for that,” or serve at $100 a shot?
Jim Guines, who served nine years on the Flagler school board, says the move is overdue. I hate to admit it. It’s needed. It’s needed,” Guines said. “That thing that’s being proposed is similar to what you’re going to find in all the other school board situations in the States. That’s the way it is.” Guines dismisses the notion that the salary reduction would reduce the boards’ diversity. Looking around the country, he said, working people and others still serve on boards despite the small or absent pay. “Too many of them see the opportunity to make a little part-time salary, and the part time salary they’re getting in there is way beyond part-time. It’s a full time salary,” he said. Much of his own salary, he said, was turned over to charity over the years.
“It’s retaliation,” board member Colleen Conklin said. “This has been an ongoing issue for several years since the School Board Association threatened to file a lawsuit. Each year something new is done in addressing salaries of school board members.” This time, Conklin says, she thinks the proposal will pass. “The truth is that common folks could never afford the opportunity to participate on a school board. I believe it would be limited to those who were wealthy or those that were retired, and I think that we would lose a very diverse number of school board members,” Conklin said.
Andy Dance, a consultant and parent of three, said the proposal, if enacted, would force him to make some changes. “Salaries are based at the whims of the legislature, so we have to live with whatever they do,” Dance said. “You adjust and move on. For me, I have based some of my work decisions based on the time I commit to the school board and the salary, so I’m able to work as a consultant. But in this market my areas of specialty are in land development, and that’s not going to recover for a while, so I have the luxury of working as a consultant on an as-needed basis. If they did away with it,” meaning the school board salary, “I’d have to make some life changes and commit to a full-time job.” He added: I’m certainly capable of adjusting to anything that’s thrown out there. I’m not going to whine and complain about it. You move on.”
But some school board members—Dance is among them—spend more time than others in their school board functions beyond school board meetings, which add up to about two regular meetings and two workshops a month, absent special numerous additional special meetings. Former board member Evie Shellenberger, who chaired the board at the end of an eight-year tenure that ended in November, said she spent about $5,000 a year in gas alone, which points to the number of functions and events she attended. Shellenberger, too, thinks the proposal is retaliation. “I really think they’re just trying to punish us,” she said, though she is not opposed to scaling back the salary to between $25,000 and $27,000.
Sue Dickinson, who chairs the school board, takes the same dim view of the proposal, for different reasons: “I personally look at it as just one more way that our state legislature is trying to have public education totally fail,” Dickinson said. “Everything they do is another negative crisis–how it’ll impact the kids and push more charters and other means of education, because there’s going to be such discontent within the system.” John Fischer, who last month recommended that employees take a 1 percent cut as an example of cost-savings, would not address the proposal, saying he had to see it first.
Board member Trevor Tucker isn’t opposed to a salary reduction, either, but not an elimination of the salary altogether. “It’s a job just like county commission or any other elected office,” Tucker said. “You should be compensated. I don’t hear anyone say county commissioners shouldn’t be compensated, or the sheriff shouldn’t be compensated, or anyone else shouldn’t be compensated.”
Current law sets school board salaries at between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. Those amounts are exceeded by $20,000 or more, as the formula state law applies also takes population of each county into account. In comparison, Flagler County Commission members are paid $47,900. The clerk of court. The property appraiser and the tax collector are paid $111,500, the sheriff is paid $120,000, and the supervisor of elections, $93,800. Florida Senate and House members are paid $18,000 a year, not including travel expenses. Legislative aides are paid between $45,000 and $60,000 a year.
Wise’s proposal applies only to school board members, however.
“We will be opposing that proposal because 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,” Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton told the News Service of Florida, noting that school districts are working closely with the state and Legislature on contentious issues regarding class size changes, the new teacher pay reforms and budget cuts. “We are doing all of that. I’m not sure where this is coming from.”
The average salary statewide was $31,619 in 2009. It dropped to $30,850 in 2010, with a low of $22,300 in Liberty County to a high of $39,000 in Broward County.
The National School Board Association in 2007 surveyed 759 school board members across the country. Two-thirds reported receiving no salary, and almost 10 percent reported receiving less than $2,000, and only 3.4 percent reported receiving more than $10,000 a year. About 20 percent of the respondents reported receiving a stipend in addition to their salary, but the stipend averaged $63 per meeting. Across the country, 32 state legislatures do not authorize school board salaries, though some allow their school board members to buy health insurance at preferential rates. Seven states forbid public money to be used as reimbursements for expenses, such as mileage, according to a staff analysis of the Wise bill at the Florida legislature. In New York City, school board members were paid $15,000 a year in 2007.