Should school board members be paid a salary?

SEATTLE -- As Washington schools continue to face huge challenges with test scores and student achievement, there’s a new proposal from one state lawmaker to help kick-start public education: Pay school board members, he argues, and thereby attract better leaders.

“We can’t demand that our kids and our teachers improve their quality, and not improve the quality of our management as well,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

School board members in Washington are basically volunteers. Yes, they get reimbursed a little for expenses such as gas and supplies but certainly not for their time.  And in a district like Seattle, a $1 billion annual enterprise, it’s a big job for someone who isn’t getting paid.

“Don’t we deserve a higher quality education system for our 50,000 kids,” asked Carlyle.

Carlyle argues that many of Seattle’s problems, and many problems in other districts, including the achievement gap, low graduation rates, and high turnover, can be tied to the fact that board members are volunteers, aren’t up to the job, and don’t have much time for it.

Carlyle’s plan would pay board members, starting in the biggest, most complex district in Seattle, a salary in-line with state legislators, which is $42,000 per year.

“It is unreasonable to expect people to have all of that knowledge and then be full-time volunteers on top,” said Carlyle. “It’s a bridge too far.”

Carlyle says the quality and diversity of the board would improve if members were compensated.

Retiring Seattle School Board Chairwoman Kay Smith-Blum agrees that it’s time to start paying some kind of salary.

“This is a job that averages, I believe, anywhere from 20-30 hours a week,” Smith-Blum said.  “Part of the reason that I personally chose not to run is that it is such a huge commitment, particularly for someone who has a full-time job, and we have three board members who have full-time jobs.”

Smith-Blum said that there are good quality candidates who don’t ever run because of the fact that it’s so overwhelming, with no compensation.

But others doubt that board pay is a panacea.

“I don’t think we are going to get a better corps of board candidates for that level of pay, and I don’t think anybody who is doing it is doing it for the pay,” said Charlie Mas who writes for the Save Seattle Schools website.  “Let’s remember, six of the last seven people who had the job ran for re-election.  So, the actual people who actually do the job clearly like it and want to keep doing it.”

Mas argued there’s a better solution to the fact that the job can be demanding, a solution that doesn’t involve paying board members.

“They don’t need to be paid themselves, they need some paid staff to answer those emails, to do some independent data gathering,” he said.  “Right now they are relying on the superintendent and staff to provide them with data.  And that’s not an unbiased source of data.”

Carlyle is working to get legislative support for his idea before lawmakers reconvene in Olympia in January.