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School board members can share the pain, legislators decide

They're closing schools, freezing employee salaries and cutting programs.

Now Florida's school board members can share in the pain of the state's financial crisis.

Over the weekend, lawmakers tentatively agreed to change state law to allow school board members to voluntarily reduce their own salaries. A final vote is expected today.

It's mostly a symbolic gesture.

The highest-paid board members make $40,932 a year. If every board member in Florida refused pay, the total wouldn't amount to 1 percent of the $500-million the Legislature has proposed in public education funding cuts.

"In these trying times, if we're asking everybody else to tighten their belt, (school board members) should, also," explained Senate Education Appropriations Committee Chairman Stephen Wise.

But the question is: Will they?

Several Tampa Bay-area board members said they gladly would return at least some of their pay.

"If we have to cut anyone's salary in the district, then I think school board members should cut the same percentage," said Pinellas board member Linda Lerner, who along with Janet Clark and Mary Russell rejected a raise amid cuts a few years ago.

"I'll give back my raise this year," said Hernando board member Sandra Nicholson, though she questioned why lawmakers targeted only school boards. "Why not everybody?"

During budget workshops, school board members often repeat that "everything is on the table," Pasco board member Joanne Hurley noted. That being the case, she said, "I've got to look at mine as well as everybody else's."

Ever since the state started setting board member salaries again last year, board members no longer could turn down some or all of the amount.

"I had to accept it and turn it back and deal with the taxes," said Hillsborough board member Jack Lamb, who planned to reject his $45 raise this year.

Despite their willingness to give back some of their salary, some board members signaled they wouldn't work for free.

"This is a job," Pasco board member Kathryn Starkey observed. "Do you think teachers should work for free if they're financially capable?"

Besides, added Pinellas board member Janet Clark, "I live on what I make."

Clark, a retired teacher, said she would give back part of her salary, which she noted is less than she would make if still in the classroom. She guessed everyone would face pay cuts before long.

"I would be saying the School Board needs to, the superintendent needs to, we all need to," she said.

Amen to that, said Sami Leigh Scott, chairwoman of the Pinellas school advisory council.

"They should have brought it up before the legislators brought it up," Scott said. "It would show great leadership for the teachers, who are doing without raises and so few resources and greater demands placed upon them."

Some teacher leaders, however, worried that the Legislature's focus on school board pay might give the wrong impression about who's ultimately responsible for the state of education funding in Florida.

Pasco teachers union president Lynne Webb called the move a cheap shot and a diversion. Hillsborough teachers union president Jean Clements agreed.

"I'm suspicious because it sounds like they're trying to cast the blame on school districts," Clements said. "It's not our School Board's fault we're in the financial situation that we're in. … It's the Legislature's lack of funding."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

School board salaries

District2007-08 salary
Hernando$32,607
Hillsborough$40,887
Pasco$37,615
Pinellas$40,592

School board members can share the pain, legislators decide 01/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 10:25pm]
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