School boards weigh price of public service

Maryland: Some say increasing pay will attract a wider pool of members and help retain those already serving.

August 07, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

When the vice president of Carroll County's school board resigned last month, she said she had grappled with the idea for nearly a year -- more and more as she found herself coming home later each night.

Laura K. Rhodes earned $3,000 a year for the 30- to 40-hour weeks she logged conducting board business, visiting schools and researching issues. But she found her time and energy increasingly sapped by the demands of a new full-time job and her family.

Her resignation after 2 1/2 years raises the issue of school board compensation -- whether board members across the state should be paid for the hours they invest, and, if so, how much.

"Until we pay people for a full-time position, it's going to be tough" on those who can't afford not to earn a living, Rhodes said after a recent news conference. She arranged the news conference on her lunch break from her management position at the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County.

Her predicament reflects that of many board members who add these quasi-volunteer positions, which are intended to be part time, to already hectic lives and busy work schedules.

With increasing accountability demands from federal, state and local officials, some board members maintain they should be paid for what their time and expertise is worth. Others, however, suggest that there is intrinsic value -- a sense of independence that allows the freedom to take unpopular stands -- when board members are not on the local government payroll.

In Maryland, 22 out of 24 school districts pay their school board members, with salaries ranging from $1,200 in Talbot County for regular board members to $22,500 for the president of Montgomery County's board. Most districts pay about $3,500, according to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

Baltimore County pays its board members a yearly $100 stipend, while those in the city receive nothing.

Though board salaries generally are modest, many members are reimbursed for such expenses as mileage, travel to conferences and cell phone usage.

"You could never make a living at this, but there is an attempt to reimburse you for your time," said Gary W. Bauer, president of Carroll County's five-member board and a retired Baltimore firefighter. "But it's not going to cover your time fully."

Bauer said he believes Carroll's school board is adequately compensated, especially in light of last year's salary increases to $5,000 for board members and $6,000 for its president. Those increases, however, apply only to newly elected members.

Nationwide, 66 percent of school board members receive no compensation, according to a 2002 survey by the Virginia-based National School Boards Association. About 10 percent earned less than $2,000, while 20 percent earned between $2,000 and $9,999, according to the group's findings. Only 4 percent earned more.

Courtney Watson, who earns $14,000 as chairman of Howard County's school board, said she believes school board members should be fairly compensated for the expertise they bring to their districts.

"It's a rewarding job, and people who do it really don't do it for the money, but it would increase the talent pool of prospective candidates if there was better compensation," said Watson, who works full time as vice president for an insurance agency.

She estimated that she and other Howard board members, who earn $12,000, attend about 40 to 50 meetings a year and make many public appearances.

"We have a heavy schedule," she said. "A dedicated board member probably averages about 20 hours a week; some weeks, it's 45 to 50 hours."

As an added incentive, Howard County recently began offering health insurance benefits to newly elected board members.

"You narrow the pool of talent when you pay $3,000 a year," Watson added. "It would have to be someone who doesn't have to work or who doesn't have to contribute to their family's income. ... Very few people will step up to the plate with those salary levels."

Watson maintains that because school board members represent students across the county -- and in some cases are elected by voters countywide -- they should be compensated comparably to other county officials.

Carroll's county commissioners, for instance, earn $45,000 a year, while Howard's council members earn $33,800 and Baltimore City Council members earn $48,000.

But Donald Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said such comparisons amount to "a self-serving argument" on the part of board members.

"County government has far more services to provide, while school systems provide just one service," Norris said. "It's an important service ... but [school board service] is not something you do to make a living, and it's not something you do as a politician. It's something you do for the good of the community."

Baltimore County's school board president, Thomas G. Grzymski, favors unpaid boards, saying he believes their members have greater freedom to stand on their principles.

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