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Board shows attorney's advice can come in handy

Opinions are like belly-buttons; everybody has one.

That truism applies to legal opinions, too.

And that is convenient for the Hernando County School Board, which proved Tuesday night that when it serves their needs, members will pick and choose when to follow the board attorney's advice.

Board members agreed at a workshop meeting Tuesday afternoon to categorically reject board attorney Karen Gaffney's pointed explicit advice to change the way they open board meetings. Gaffney advised the board it is violating the U.S. Constitution with the present method of allowing board members to offer invocations that promote religion.

In particular, the law, which has been upheld in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Gaffney said, specifies the board must avoid endorsing a particular religion.

The board unanimously agreed to disregard Gaffney's legal opinion. The consensus was that prayer at board meetings is a nonissue, so there's nothing to be gained from rocking the boat. Some members went a step further and indicated they thought Gaffney's advice was flawed, and others have criticized Gaffney for even bringing up the subject.

Fair enough. Even though the board almost certainly has assumed a legally indefensible position, Hernando County residents _ at least those who support prayer at government meetings _ should be pleased to see their elected officials exhibit some independent thought by not rubber-stamping the attorney's recommendation.

But that free will was nowhere to be found a couple of hours later at the board's regular meeting.

The board had the chance, for the very first time, to set its members' salaries. That opportunity came courtesy of the Florida Legislature, which passed a law earlier this year that superseded the existing law that ties School Board members' salaries directly to the population of their counties.

But the new law is not very well-written, and has created confusion about whether it would affect all members immediately, just the three who were re-elected this year, or even if the board members have the option of lowering their existing salaries.

The Florida School Boards Association, an umbrella group that lobbies the Legislature on behalf of local school boards, has been very critical of the new law. So has the Florida School Board Attorneys Association. Not surprisingly, those groups advised their members to basically ignore the law and to continue with the current wage scale that is based on population. That would raise Hernando County's board members' salaries from $27,755 to $28,522, an increase of $767.

Meanwhile, there had been considerable talk about board members not accepting the raises. Beyond that, some had said they would be willing to lower their salaries to $26,600, which is the salary of a starting teacher in the district.

But when the time came to put their money where their backbones should be, board members turned to attorney Gaffney before even debating the issue.

A caustic Gaffney was eager to oblige. Seizing the opportunity to blast state lawmakers for writing lousy law and doing a "disservice to school boards throughout the state," Gaffney told board members they should accept the raise. In fact, she said, the two members who were not re-elected this year had no choice about lowering their salaries.

This time around, Gaffney's advice was gospel, and the board, after much hand-wringing and laments about having no choice but to concur, voted unanimously to embrace Gaffney's recommendation _ and the extra money.

Only board member Robert Wiggins took a symbolic stand by vowing to donate his extra pay to various charities. He was compelled to do so after making a campaign promise to set his salary no higher than a rookie teacher's.

Gaffney admitted the new law is "as clear as mud" and almost certainly will be the subject of multiple interpretations. So, it would seem the board could have refused her advice and broken some new ground by lowering some, or perhaps all, members' salaries as much as they wanted. Who would have complained? One of the board members? Not likely, at least not if they ever intend to be re-elected.

The bottom line is the board didn't exert its willpower on the pay issue the way it did on prayer. Instead, it took the politically expedient _ and personally profitable _ path, and alternately abused and used its attorney to achieve its agenda. Both actions have cost taxpayers money.

Maybe we should just start passing the plate after the invocation.

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