Last month, the chairman of the Fairfax County School Board made an impassioned plea to the Board of Supervisors to provide $14 million more to balance next year’s school budget. Two days later, she and four colleagues — a minority of the board, given three abstentions — voted themselves a 60 percent pay raise. Some tried to double their pay but lacked the votes.
Board members breathed a collective sigh of relief that this embarrassing ordeal is finally over. Their relief may, however, be short-lived, as voters will have the last word — on Election Day in November. Stoked by the anger of teachers who have seen their pay stagnate while the board raised class sizes, voters may reject the disconnect between the board’s love of teachers rhetoric and its ill-considered vote to raise its own pay.
Supporters had a litany of reasons: We can raise pay only during the first six months of an election year. We are raising the pay only for the board taking office next January (if reelected, the five who voted for the pay raise — Ilryong Moon, Ted Velkoff, Pat Hynes, Tamara Derenak Kaufax and Sandy Evans — will benefit). The board last raised its pay in 2007. The Board of Supervisors just raised its pay by $20,000, and the school board has more employees and a bigger budget than the supervisors. A higher salary will attract people to run for the board. Other boards make more money. We are worth more than $32,000 a year.
All but one of those are true — salary does not discourage people from running for the board. And yet the board members were still wrong.
The school system has just weathered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Budget constraints led the board to severely limit teacher raises. It increased class sizes and cut thousands of positions, while experiencing extraordinary enrollment growth. As the system emerges from economic crisis, the board may give teachers a 0.62 percent cost-of-living adjustment next year. By voting to raise their pay by 60 percent in this climate, board members belied their own rhetoric that raising teacher salaries was their top priority.
I served on the board for 16 years, beginning at a salary of $8,000. I know why people seek this office. It is not for the pay. In some places, including Chicago and Texas, board members are not paid. We serve because we believe in public education and care passionately about children.
One reason people don’t run for school board is the schedule the board sets for itself. Board members do not need to work full time and attend meetings every day. In the guise of accountability, the board has become a “shadow” superintendent, placing unreasonable demands on members’ time and energy. The board can fix this at no cost by opening service opportunities for those who can’t make an unlimited time commitment.
Another, perhaps more significant reason people don’t run is the election process. Although the position is nonpartisan, no one has been elected without party endorsement. To run, a candidate must undergo an endorsement process, raise money and organize a political campaign. That’s a nearly insurmountable challenge for the average citizen, let alone a person with children at home. More than 1.1 million people live in Fairfax, and almost all school board members represent more than 120,000 residents. Candidates for at-large school board member have had to raise more than $100,000, and some district candidates more than $50,000.
It is not the salary that discourages people from running for school board. It is all of the sacrifices one has to make to get there in the first place.
School board members should be paid more than $20,000. But when they vote themselves a raise, that raise should meet some important criteria: It should require the affirmative vote of a majority of board members, not just a majority of those who did not abstain; raises should be proportional to the raises they give their employees; the board should advertise the proposal under consideration and give the public enough time to influence the decision; and the board should not vote itself a huge raise right after it cried poverty.
Only those candidates for the board who support these criteria will get my support and my vote in November.
The writer served on the Fairfax County School Board from 1996 to 2012.