By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — After debating whether county school board members should be paid, and if ending salaries would threaten diversity on the boards, a House panel took a first step Friday toward letting voters decide the issue in 2022.
The Republican-controlled House Secondary Education & Career Development Subcommittee, in an 11-6 party-line vote, approved a measure (HJR 1461) that would place a proposed constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot about whether to continue paying school board members.
“Florida’s system of compensating school board members with salaries and benefits, to the extent that we do, is a national outlier,” said Rep. Sam Garrison, a Fleming Island Republican who is sponsoring the proposal.
Garrison pointed to a 2018 report from the National School Boards Association showing 61 percent of board members nationally receive no pay. Florida school board members are paid an average of $35,995 annually, according to a House staff analysis. Garrison said school board members receive an additional $10,000 to $11,000 in benefits on average.
“School boards … serve a vital and important function. They are nonpartisan. They are designed to be the voice of the community and provide oversight in terms of budget and curriculum,” Garrison told the House panel. “It’s a critical function, but one, quite frankly, that unfortunately has … become highly politicized. And, quite frankly I think these salaries have a lot to do with that.”
The proposal was met by passionate objections from some Democrats on the panel, including former Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes, D-Tampa.
“When I was elected to the school board in 2004, I had two jobs. And I only had a high school diploma, of which I’m very proud of,” said Valdés, who added she’s gone on to attain bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Valdés, who left the school board to run for her House seat, recounted the work on the school board.
“I, as a school board member, busted my chops in my district to be able to provide equity in my district, to provide opportunities for students who look like me and others in this community, that otherwise prior to that were completely ignored,” she said.
Valdés said prohibiting pay for school board members would make boards less reflective of their communities’ diversity.
“Diversity within our electoral process is extremely important, and by suggesting that we do this … we’re going to have white males on these boards that never, ever would be able to say they walked a day in my shoes,” Valdés said.
But Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, rebutted Valdés’ argument, using the example of a charter school board in his district.
“We have a great charter school … in our district, in my city. And their entire board, they’re all volunteers. And they are just as passionate — in my opinion, more passionate — than our school district members,” Giallombardo said.
Garrison rejected the idea that prohibiting salaries would mean only white men would seek positions on school boards.
“I reject out of hand the notion that only rich people, or white people, or men, would serve on school boards if there’s no salary,” Garrison said.
Eliminating school board member salaries statewide would be a potential savings of more than $15.6 million, according to the House staff analysis.
Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens, questioned whether school board members should be treated differently than other elected officials who receive salaries, such property appraisers and sheriffs.
“They are part of a system of governance that’s part of a collective, and all parts are important, wouldn’t you say?” Benjamin asked.
Garrison pointed to differences between school board members and other elected positions, one being that they are part of an oversight board with no executive authority.
“School board members provide that different function, they are an oversight function. They are responsible for budgets, they’re responsible for curriculums,” Garrison said. “Comparing them to sheriffs, comparing them to tax collectors or property appraisers, I respectfully submit, is comparing apples to oranges.”
The Florida School Boards Association opposes the measure.
“School board members, similarly to their constitutionally elected peers such as county commissioners, are currently compensated for their time, their liability, the great responsibility of budget oversight. In many cases in Florida, the hiring and firing of district school superintendents,” said BillieAnne Gay, a lobbyist for the association. “We believe that that should continue.”
Also speaking against the proposal Friday was Chris Doolin, who represents the Small School District Council Consortium, which is made up of rural districts.
“What is the value of inclusion, what is the value of providing the opportunity for diversity?” Doolin said. “The prohibition of compensation will have the effect of limiting the ability of Floridians to consider running.”
The proposal would need approval from two more House panels before it could go to the full House. The Senate does not have a similar proposal. Legislators are paid about $30,000 a year.