Getting What We Pay For: Are our school board members underpaid?

| October 12, 2013 | 1 Comment

Should we apply to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education the maxim that “you get what you pay for”?  Regular school board members earn $6,000/year (the president earns $8,000/year) to oversee an operating and capital budget of over $1 billion, one of the fifty largest public school districts in the United States out of more than 14,000.  On a per student basis, we have one of the wealthiest public school districts in the world.

When it comes to paying the more than 10,000 employees in the school district, the Board of Education frequently reminds the public that “you get what you pay for.”  They tell us that if we want to attract and retain the best employees, we must pay such employees commensurately.  But should we apply the same reasoning to our school board members, who are paid far less than minimum wage?

As a general rule, the public doesn’t think so.  Following in the tradition of seventeenth century Britain, a period in history when American colonists were highly influenced by their mother country, they think politicians should be motivated by the ideal of public service.

When the British developed this working philosophy, they applied it to not only politics but also sports, art, and society more generally.  It was part and parcel of the class stratification that pervaded British society.  To do things for money was considered a mark of being part of the lower classes; it was a signal of low quality work.

The Americans abandoned most aspects of the British cult of amateurism.  Professionalism was what was admired here.  But in politics it was largely retained—and with a vengeance for Anne Arundel County’s Board of Education.

Even in politics, however, the British tradition was transformed.  The British idea was that money should not be pursued in any of its forms.  But here the idea only applies to direct compensation; indirect compensation is fine.  For example, we have a Board of Education dominated by members who have secondary economic payoffs from serving on the Board: members with spouses and children who work for the public schools (currently 4 of the 8 board members) and members who work for or lobby government and presumably recognize that high level government service will likely enhance their careers.

Of course, the resulting economic motivations are not all self-aggrandizing.  Among other things, they make Board of Education members trustworthy to the key employee groups that have veto power over their appointment (e.g., see Governor to reappoint two incumbents to AACPS school board).

So should we pay our Board of Education more?  I do agree with the principle that, as a general rule, you get what you pay for.  But if one is unlikely to get more by paying more, there is no reason to do so.  Based on the corollary principle of paying in proportion to benefits received, I’d actually suggest paying less.

Our current Board of Education costs taxpayers more than half a million dollars per year, including compensation, workshops, travel to conferences, meals, and staff support.  But its role is primarily ceremonial rather than substantive.  It delegates all vital authority to the superintendent, its philosopher-king, and abhors what it calls “micromanaging.”  There is a whiff of Russia’s parliament about it: weak powers, poor constituent service, little meaningful disagreement among its members, indifference to real injustice, and de minimis oversight of the executive branch—but lots of moralistic bluster and showmanship, with great benefits provided to those who put on a good public show.

It would save more than a half million dollars per year to have the county executive appoint the superintendent and be done with the Board of Education.  But that’s too radical a reform.  Instead, I’d suggest having the county executive appoint the superintendent but keep a school board with a slimmed down job function—setting policy, serving as the final court for student grievances, and furthering the school-related First Amendment rights of their constituents to speech and assembly.  Assuming the school board performed those limited but vital responsibilities much better than it currently does (e.g., see Maxwell’s Political Legacy), it could not only justify its current meager compensation but be worthy of a decent wage.

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Category: Local News, NEWS, OPINION, POLITICAL NEWS

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J.H. Snider, a political scientist and democratic reformer, is a student of local politics. For updates on his local and state articles, like this page. (This Facebook page is an experiment and may be discontinued.)