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Salary debate should be broader

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

Pay up.

Not in dollars and cents. In political capital.

You can't blame School Board members for feeling that way. Not just here in Pasco. It's a phenomenon across the state.

After years of getting automatic pay raises, set by state law according to population growth, school boards now must vote on their own salaries. That is not a bad thing. It's called accountability.

City councils and other local governing boards do it. The Dade City Commission, for instance, decided to forgo its planned salary increase this year after it became apparent it would have a difficult time balancing the city budget. In Port Richey, the council let voters decide the salaries in a referendum.

The idea of elected officials getting automatic pay raises is absurd, particularly when the formula is tied to people moving into the county instead of a cost of living index.

Years ago, a now retired county commissioner -- seeking a newspaper editorial recommendation at the time -- said she would seek to have the Legislature change the law. Yeah, right. Sylvia Young not only forgot the campaign promise, she later tied her administrator's salary to the same archaic formula.

But, requiring school boards to vote on their salaries while giving a pass to county commissioners and every other constitutional officer is political payback from Tallahassee.

"It's the Legislature's response to very vocal school boards protesting the lack of money for education," said School Board member Marge Whaley. "If we kowtow, do they take it back? If they get mad at the County Commission, are they next?"

Pasco School Board members earn $31,975 annually. As a comparison, starting teachers earn $31,000. At its Dec. 3 meeting, the board is required, under a new state law, to set its salary for the coming year. Interviews with Pasco's five board members indicate a clear intention to follow the recommendation of the Florida School Board Association to not vary from the current formula.

In other words, ignore the Legislature. We'd all like to do that at times.

That unanimity hasn't been the case in neighboring counties. In Polk County, four of seven board members said they were willing to cut their pay by more than $5,000 annually to mirror the salary for starting teachers, $29,050. In Hernando County, a School Board member said he wanted to do the same thing, lowering the board pay to $26,600.

The board's lawyer, however, said state law appeared to apply only to board members elected in 2002, meaning newly re-elected Robert Wiggins could not make a motion to set the wages for board members in the middle of their terms.

The board then unanimously voted for a $767 raise, to $28,522. Wiggins, however, got the last word, making a symbolic gesture of promising to donate the difference to charity.

Before accepting a blanket endorsement of the state lobbying group, the Pasco School Board ought to consider local needs and debate its salary level. They may arrive at the same conclusion as the association -- that a raise from $31,975 is warranted.

Teacher pay went up 7 percent this year. Some could argue -- though not for political expediency -- that the board could be entitled to a similar increase.

If the board is to consider personal financial considerations, members can recite their own decisions. Marge Whaley retired from a district administrator job and took a 50 percent pay cut when she joined the board in 1992. Kathleen Wolf and Jean Larkin Weightman closed their personal businesses after joining the board.

Those aren't particularly sound arguments, mind you, since, presumably, board members knew what they were in for when they signed up to run.

It is noteworthy, though, that individual School Board members are now sitting as members of the citizens advisory committees charting changes to the comprehensive land-use plan. County commissioners, citing the workload from those committees, recently decided to cut the number of monthly commission meetings from four to two. That is the same schedule the School Board follows.

County commissioners are paid $66,810 and three of the five retain their outside jobs.

Are School Board members put upon? No argument here. But not because they have to vote on their own salaries.

Because nobody else in countywide office is held to the same standard.

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