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A noble lesson in fairness

The Hernando County School Board is expected to do something Tuesday that very few people have ever done:

Turn down a pay raise.

At the same time, they'll do something even rarer:

They'll take a pay cut.

For the first time, school boards throughout Florida have the option of setting their own salaries. Until the state Legislature changed the law (Florida Statute 1001.395) last spring, school board members' wages, just like the salaries of county commissioners, constitutional officers and judges, were tied to the population of their respective counties.

In Hernando, the current annual pay for a School Board member is $27,755. Based on the old formula, board members' pay would rise automatically by $767, to $28,522.

That's not a huge amount of money, especially when you consider how much time board members spend on their jobs. It's far more time-consuming than showing up at a couple of meetings a month, casting a few votes or handing out atta-boys to students.

However, it's still $2,922 more than a rookie teacher was paid last year, and $1,922 more than that same beginning teacher is expected to make this year.

That disparity has not been lost on board members, who just endured another negotiating session with the teachers union, which still hasn't given final approval to the contract proposed by the board. Also, this was an election year and at least one board member, Robert Wiggins, made a campaign promise that he would not accept any salary higher than a starting teacher's.

The idea of tying board members' pay to that of teachers is not new. Board member Gail David has talked about it for years, and recently brought it up at a board meeting. Members Jim Malcolm and John Druzbick later said they would support the idea if it came up for a vote.

That time has come, and it's almost certain that on Tuesday night the board will set its members' salaries at $26,600, which will be $1,155 less than they make now, and $1,922 less than they could pay themselves.

This pay cut will not be too painful. All five have other jobs and business interests, so you're not likely to bump into them in the free cheese line.

But it is a sacrifice, albeit mostly symbolic, to tie their pay directly to that of a starting teacher. It should remind them that every time they cash their check, there is a young teacher out there who is looking at the same bottom line, but who probably has no supplemental income and is relying on that amount to pay all the bills.

Even though they will volunteer to cut their pay and agree with the notion of not putting themselves above the lowest-paid teachers, some board members are skeptical about how they came to have such discretion.

School Board chairman John Druzbick said Friday he found it "strange" and "ironic" that the Legislature "singled out school boards as the only elected officials who set our own salaries."

A month earlier, board member Jim Malcolm was even more candid in his remarks to a Times reporter. "The whole issue of transferring it to the school boards is one of the ploys by the Legislature to punish school boards for their opposition to the A-Plus Plan." The 10-year board veteran was referring to the system for grading public schools that Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through the Republican-run Legislature.

That's an interesting, if cynical, theory, and begs the question: If the Legislature were truly sold on the notion that public officials setting their own salaries is a responsible practice in a citizen-run government, then why didn't they include constitutional officers, or themselves, for that matter?

(Actually, state legislators do set their own salaries and they are not tied to population. A senator from Hernando County _ if there ever is one again _ makes the same as a senator from Miami.)

It would be unrealistic to expect that state legislators or school board members would work without compensation in this day and age. Doing so would be the same as asking them to pay for becoming one of the most universally hated class of people in our society.

Besides, I'd much rather pay a fair salary to a public official who is spending millions of tax dollars, than have him walking around with his pockets empty. That's a recipe for corruption.

Regardless of the Legislature's motive or intent in changing this law, it probably will result in the Hernando School Board passing up what is rightfully theirs, all in the name of parity with some of its most valuable employees.

That can't be all bad.