TALLAHASSEE — School board members are not getting much love this year from state lawmakers.
In addition to extensive education reforms and stinging classroom budget cuts, the Florida Legislature is contemplating doing away with board members' salaries altogether.
"This is just one more indication of the desire to destroy public education as we know it," said Pinellas board Chairwoman Carol Cook, whose term expires next year. Without salaries, "it will become a special-interest school board as opposed to school board members being the connection to the community."
The move comes on the heels of a blistering statewide grand jury report detailing widespread corruption in the Broward school district. In less than two years, two board members have been indicted separately on corruption charges. Broward board members were the highest paid in the state last school year, with annual salaries of $39,000.
The proposal to get rid of board members' pay was filed by Sen. Stephen Wise. The Jacksonville Republican chairs the Senate Education committee that will hear the bill today.
Wise said the legislation is unrelated to Broward. Instead, it's part of his years-old effort to shrink board salaries, he said.
Board members "cried, whined, screamed and yelled" when he first brought down their pay to the same level as lawmakers — and then the salary for first-year teachers, Wise said.
"The only reason was because they were more concerned about that than the kids."
Not so, board members say, adding that they feel unfairly targeted by the Legislature.
"This is just constant harassment of elected officials," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
Under the proposal, board members would be allowed to receive only a $100 stipend per board meeting, making them ineligible for a state pension.
Members would still be reimbursed for travel expenses. But any of those elected or re-elected starting next year would no longer receive a salary based on their county's population. Board salaries averaged $30,850 across the state in 2009-10, the Florida Department of Education said.
Hillsborough member Carol Kurdell said the job has changed since she was first elected in 1992. It's no longer possible to hold down another job and perform well as a board member, unless employers are willing to make allowances.
And taking away the salary might drive some good candidates away, she said.
"What I think will happen is you'll get people who have good incomes or high salaries that will run for the board," Kurdell predicted. "And you'll lose some of the touch for the average person or people that you would consider blue-collar workers."
Pinellas School Board member Peggy O'Shea, who was re-elected last year, said she would probably continue serving without a salary but would likely have to find other work. "Which means I wouldn't put the time and effort I'm putting in now," she said.
Pinellas and Hillsborough school board members make $37,000. Their counterparts in Miami-Dade make $38,500.
"We work very hard and represent very large constituencies," said Miami-Dade Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman, calling Wise's plan a distraction. "In my opinion, what they should be focusing on is trying to find adequate funding for education."
Board members' salaries could go to classrooms, Wise said: "That gives more money for students."
"I'm a bit insulted by it," Hillsborough board Chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb said of the bill. "Do the people who are proposing it understand the hard work, the dedication, the compassion of school board members? If they did, they would realize this is not by any means a part-time job."
She acknowledged that board members overseeing tiny New England districts can manage without salaries. But she described Hillsborough — the eighth largest district in the nation, serving 192,000 students and 250 schools over a county the size of Rhode Island — as an entirely different proposition.
"Our roles are complex because the issues that come before us are complex," Edgecomb said. "It isn't simply showing up and making some decisions at a board meeting."
Public officials, including school board members, are already barred from accepting anything of value to influence their vote. Board members and any companies in which they have a financial interest are prohibited from doing business with their school districts. And members have to report to the state Ethics Commission any gift of more than $100.
Wise's provision also would expand the rules by making any gift — including transportation, food and flowers — to board members or their relatives unacceptable.
Pinellas School Board member Cook suggested the bill could be political payback because school boards have fought for more funding and fought back against state mandates.
"I question the timing of it all," she said, noting that many school board members were in Tallahassee the week before last. "Is it a coincidence that we happen to be there irritating them and the next week they come out with this? I don't know."