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School board sets pay rates for members

Throughout his re-election campaign, School Board member Robert Wiggins promised to tie board member salaries to a starting teacher's pay.

When the issue came up Tuesday, though, he was stymied at every turn and eventually voted with the others for a $767 pay raise, to $28,522.

Wiggins said he would donate the difference to youth-related charities, beginning with the school district's education foundation.

And he will not give up the idea. "If the state Legislature does give us the authority to set our own salaries. . . . I will push to even set a (board) policy that ties it to starting teacher salaries," Wiggins said after the meeting.

His problem was born by a statute that told school boards to establish their pay rates rather than follow a previously used state formula. But the law appeared to apply only to board members elected in 2002 and afterward, and not those in the middle of their terms.

The board's lawyer focused on that seeming division, and a Florida School Board Association initiative to show lawmakers its displeasure with the measure, when she told Wiggins he could not move to set all five board members' pay at $26,600, the district's proposed amount for first-year teachers.

"It definitely doesn't apply to Mrs. (Gail) David or Mr. (Jim) Malcolm," board attorney Karen Gaffney told the members. The board's vexing situation highlighted "the unfairness of asking five people with five exactly identical job descriptions to take different salaries," she said.

Board Chairman John Druzbick then nixed Wiggins' desire to make only his own salary the same as the new teachers,' contending that the board must act as one. At most, the members could have one pay rate for Wiggins, Druzbick and Sandra Nicholson, and another for Malcolm and David.

Even that idea didn't fly.

"I feel rather uncomfortable setting your salaries lower than what mine would be," Malcolm told his colleagues.

David challenged the notion that she and Malcolm could not lower or freeze their salaries. But Gaffney responded that the Legislature had set sitting board members' pay schedule in law, and they had a vested right to it.

The idea of rejecting that vested right was out of the question, Gaffney said.

"In two years, at least it will make some sense," she said, noting that all members will come under the new law at that time. "Right now, you're in this horrible position to set somebody's salary other than your own."

"It sounds familiar," Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Cynthia Moore said, loud enough to hear, in the back of the room. The teachers union has yet to approve its proposed contract with the board.

Malcolm noted the different philosophies among board members, and suggested the answer might be to adopt the salary they would have received if the state had continued to set the rate.

"If people have a feeling that they want to divest themselves of part of that, they can do so," he said.

After some debate about the personal tax implications of such a decision, board members unanimously passed that motion. Wiggins then announced his decision to donate the difference. After the meeting, David said she also would give her additional pay to charity.

Moore and HCTA activist Alan Minthorn, a failed board candidate, scoffed at the vote. They contended the board could have set its salary at any level, and simply chose not to act decisively.

"It was all a show," Moore said, shaking her head. "Show, show, show."

"I wish the remainder of the board would have had the integrity and desire of Mr. Wiggins to set the salary to that of a beginning teacher," said Minthorn, a teacher at Springstead High School. "I am sure the board will have the same generosity during the teachers' summer bargaining sessions as they were with themselves."

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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