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Should School Board Members Be Paid? More Districts Are Trying It Out

Charmaine Lindsay plans to vote in favor of a salary increase this week, not for herself, but as a favor to those who succeed her on the Denver school board.

On Thursday, the seven-person board that oversees the 89,000-student district, Colorado’s largest, will take a controversial vote on increasing its members’ annual pay from a cap of $8,250 to the state-allowed maximum of $33,000, a move intended to attract a more diverse pool of future candidates and more fairly compensate members for their time and expertise.

The Colorado law that allows school board members to be paid, passed in 2021, doesn’t allow board members to raise their own pay. So, if the increase passes on Nov. 16, only board members sworn in afterward will be eligible. Lindsay lost her election to the board on Nov. 7 in a bid for her first full term after she was appointed in 2022 to fill a vacant seat. Her last day on the board will be Nov. 27.

“The reason I’m going to vote on it even though I just lost the election is really just that I totally believe in it,” Lindsay said, adding that she spends an average of 30 hours per week on board duties, on top of her main job running a private law practice. “We’re only attracting people who are wealthy and can afford to do this for free for four years, or we have people who are struggling financially the whole time they’re on the board, which isn’t sustainable or fair.”

Opponents argue, however, that the money used to pay board members—which would total $231,000 annually once the new pay is fully phased in, or less than 0.02 percent of Denver’s current school budget—would be better spent on classroom supports, like more teachers or additional tutoring services.

Compensation for school board members is growing in popularity. The National School Boards Association has suggested local boards take a look at paying their members and even providing health insurance as a way of boosting economic diversity. But no research has been conducted to prove whether the pay hike is effective in attracting more diverse candidates or in improving board members’ ability to manage districts, according to education researchers.

Still, some boards have made moves in recent years to establish or raise board members’ pay—with Denver potentially the next to do so—and more states have gradually allowed it to happen. The boards making the investment are hoping their schools and students will ultimately benefit as a result.

A job vs. a public service

Even as more boards start paying their members, it’s still more common for boards of education to provide no compensation at all outside of reimbursement for expenses.

Some provide what are effectively stipends, allocating a set amount to be paid for each meeting attended. Usually, those amounts are less than $100 per meeting, according to a review of state laws. Others allow for per diem payments and set an annual maximum.

Most often, school board members receive substantive pay in larger, urban or suburban districts—like in Montgomery County, Md., just outside of Washington, where members are paid $25,000 per year; Fairfax County in northern Virginia, where members receive $48,000; and Los Angeles, whose school board members are possibly the highest paid in the country. School board members there who don’t have other employment receive $125,000 while those who do have other jobs receive $50,000.

Some states’ laws, including in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, explicitly bar school board members from being paid.

Joining a school board has long been viewed as a public service, and state lawmakers shied away from allowing pay for the positions in an attempt to dissuade “bad actors” from running, said Rachel White, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, who studies school district leadership, including school boards.

“The thought was that money would lead to different types of candidates but, at the time when those conversations were happening, I don’t think they were thinking about diversity,” White said. “They were probably thinking that the motivation to run shouldn’t be to have a salary, it should be to serve your constituency.”

But conditions and concerns today are different.

While there’s no current, centralized accounting of how many states allow, restrict, or mandate school board members’ pay, a handful of states in recent years—including Colorado—have updated their laws to allow compensation. Lawmakers and advocates in most places have stated the goal is to cast a wider net when recruiting board candidates.

Illinois legislators have proposed a bill that would allow elected school board members in Chicago to be paid, a move intended to encourage parents from low-income homes to run for seats.

The change would come as the school board transitions away from having all mayor-appointed members to a 21-member, fully elected board by early 2027.

Allowing Chicago board members to be paid would require allowing an exception to a statewide ban on paying school board members.

A topic lacking research

But there’s no real evidence that paying school board members has any effect, either positive or negative, White said. That’s because no formal research has been done on the topic, despite the increased interest.

Unlike with classroom management, there’s little academic research about school boards and their members, White said, including into what makes them effective leaders. There’s also no research about how much money they’d need to pay members to influence who runs or how well they oversee the district, she said.

There’s anecdotal evidence that school boards that pay their members tend to be in more urban areas with more diverse populations. So, those places are already more likely to have diverse candidate slates, and it would be hard to determine what effect the compensation had in boosting candidates’ racial and socioeconomic diversity, said White, a former school board member in Ohio.

“I wish that I could say I have a strong opinion about this, but this really is a hard topic and there’s just no evidence to say one way or the other,” White said. “Compensation isn’t why I did the work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be considering how to make sure that people who want to do this work can, and if that means considering compensation in some cases, I think we need to consider that.”

Other roadblocks

If paying board members does lead to a more diverse pool of candidates who bring different perspectives to the table that ultimately benefit students, the investment pays for itself, White said.

On the other hand, a lack of adequate compensation isn’t the only barrier to convincing people to run for school board.

It’s a challenging job with big responsibilities, and, at times, heightened public scrutiny.

In recent years, school board meetings have taken center stage in heated political debates over how race and gender are taught in schools, book challenges, and LGBTQ+ policies.

The added stress and poor public perception of school boards are a “big challenge,” said Lindsay, the outgoing Denver board member.

If nothing else, expecting people to put in long hours for little or no pay isn’t fair, she said, and you also don’t want people skimping on their board duties because they have to work.

Lindsay has had to cut back on work at her law firm to accommodate her school board work—to attend meetings and community events, visit schools, review meeting materials that can regularly total hundreds of pages, and respond to community members’ feedback and concerns.

“If you’re trying to work a full-time job on top of all of that, it’s impossible,” Lindsay said.

For school boards that are considering establishing or raising compensation, White said it’s important that they clearly define their goals, evaluate each year whether the compensation is having the intended effect, and be willing to adjust or backtrack if needed.

“They have to not be afraid to say it didn’t work if that ends up being the case,” she said. “They have to say when it’s time to go back to the drawing board and be open to doing their own analysis to see whether or not the pay is helping them move toward the outcomes that they’re interested in.”

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