Originally published July 26, 2011 at 3:49 PM | Page modified July 26, 2011 at 6:01 PM

Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Time to pay school board members

Watching Seattle School Board candidates on the political hustings this summer illuminated a stark need: salaries for board members.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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Everyone should occasionally rethink closely held convictions. In this summer of watching Seattle School Board candidates on the political hustings, here's mine: It is time to pay board members.

I mean a salary, not the current per diem capped at $4,800 a year. In the past, I bought into the notion that community service comes gratis. You don't get paid for giving back.

That rule may still hold true in small, homogeneous districts. But those vying for a seat on Seattle's School Board are seeking responsibility for a large, complex, billion-dollar enterprise. While district watchers can be like the proverbial blind men feeling different parts of an elephant — knowing everything about the trunk, little about the legs — board members must understand the whole.

But too often they don't. I recently called on the public to send me questions for board candidates. The breadth and depth of queries underscored a public expectation that board members deeply immerse themselves in policy and personnel issues. I agree. But that's more than a volunteer role.

Among the dozens of questions about bilingual and special education, alternative schools, math curricula and nutritional policies, questions about board governance underscored a public desire for a board that plays more of a devil's advocate role.

That only works for board members who understand the issues well. A recent addition of a manager/policy analyst to provide research for the seven-member board won't eclipse the need for future board members to spend more time understanding complex issues and corralling the district's vast bureaucracy.

It isn't just Seattle; the narrative of school board service nationwide is changing.

In the past, boards made strong hires and lightly oversaw implementation of policy. A board member racing from a day job with a passing nod to the spouse and kids wasn't expected to have the level of information to second-guess staff hired as experts in their field.

I think it's still good management to hire well and rely on employees. Prolonged distrust and second-guessing is toxic in any enterprise. But you'd have to have been hiding in one of Seattle's famed potholes not to know the School Board has some serious trust issues with district administration. That, and the need to grapple with controversial issues around budgets and state and federal education reforms, heightens the need for a board far more engaged and present than past ones.

Most of the country's 14,000 school districts offer only small allowances for meetings and travel. Seattle should join the growing number of large and urban districts shifting to salaried positions, captured in a report by the National School Boards Association. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, 73 percent pay hikes were approved for board members, increasing annual salaries from $26,000 to nearly $46,000. Board members had to agree not to hold down other jobs.

I like that. To whom much is given, much is expected.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, wrote a bill in the last legislative session that would have given Washington's largest districts the authority to pay their school board members up to $25,000 annually.

Larger concerns, including a recession-carved state budget hole, eclipsed further efforts but the Seattle Democrat is onto something.

School directors attend several meetings a week and delve into complex educational issues. We expect them to know how money flows in and out of the K-12 system and how state and federal regulatory reforms help or hinder various programs.

Some might demand money found for salaries to go to teachers or to make up for steep cuts in educational programs. The timing is another conversation. Allowing districts to pay school boards starts the process toward prioritizing it in budgets.

Others would argue boards don't need salaries, but better listening skills when it comes to constituents. I agree on the latter. But listening to constituents isn't enough. That just exchanges one master for another. The solution lies in a board willing to commit the time to build the skills, knowledge and expertise needed to rely on its own counsel.

I'm willing to pay for this. Are you?

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is; follow her on Twitter @lkvarner.


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