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New bill would allow school board members in Pa. to get paid

Bill would allow Pa. school board members to get paid
Bill would allow Pa. school board members to get paid 02:05

HARRISBURG (KDKA) -- What does Pennsylvania have in common with Texas and no other state? 

Following Colorado's recent decision to allow school board members to earn salaries of up to $150 per day, only Texas and Pennsylvania prohibit school board members from earning salaries, based on this analysis before the change in Colorado. 

On the other end of the spectrum are a few states like Florida, where all school board members earn salaries of as much as about $46,000 in the largest districts. 

Most other states allow, but do not require, districts to pay their members. That could change if a proposal by Rep. Joe Webster (D-Montgomery County) becomes law. 

Webster also wants to allow board members to take certain free college courses to educate themselves about board service-related issues and to require more training for new board members. 

Beth Sviben, a board member at the Central Dauphin School District – central Pennsylvania's largest – said modest board pay could overcome an obstacle other people have cited as a reason to avoid running. 

"They said, 'Hey, I can't step up and run, because I can't pay a babysitter,'" Sviben said. 

Webster said those are exactly the kinds of people who should be represented on school boards, because they could "bring a different perspective to a school board." 

He said even in his relatively affluent legislative district, about 20 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but those students' parents don't tend to serve on school boards. 

"That did become apparent in March and April of 2020, when the pandemic was impacting our schools initially, and then realizing some families were dependent on that school meal, while other families were OK," Webster said. 

Webster's ideas are in the early stages of the legislative process. Most bills introduced in Pennsylvania don't become law, and right now no bills are becoming law because of a stand-off between Democrats and Republicans keeping the House of Representatives from functioning. 

No formal opposition has emerged so far. Nationally, opponents of plans to initiate or increase school board pay generally cite the cost: To pay themselves, board members might need to raise taxes or divert funds from classrooms. 

"When it costs taxpayer money, it always becomes serious," Webster said. "You have to weigh all the pluses and minuses." 

One compromise that helped the Colorado bill become law: Existing school boards could vote only to allow future board members to receive salaries, so that board members weren't voting to pay themselves. The state also limited board member pay to $150 per day. 

The board of the state's largest district, Denver Public Schools, ultimately voted to pay future board members up to $9,000 per year

Webster himself said his proposals are imperfect. 

"If we were drawing this up on a clean sheet of paper, we wouldn't do it this way," he said. 

But he said within Pennsylvania's structural constraints, they're better than nothing. 

Sviben said based on her experience – especially at meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, when tensions were high over issues like masking – some Pennsylvanians would be less surprised by Webster's proposal than by the reality that board members don't already earn salaries. 

"People would come to the meetings to speak, when they were upset about things, [saying] 'We're not going to pay you,'" she said. "'And my response was, 'Well, you don't.'" 

One major difference between Pennsylvania, on one end of the compensation spectrum, and Florida, on the other: Both states have exactly 67 counties. But Florida has just 67 school districts – one per county. Pennsylvania has about 500 districts, which the Pennsylvania School Boards Association represents. 

What does the PSBA think of Webster's idea? 

"Our member-driven legislative platform does not speak to this issue, so we usually don't take a position on issues such as this," said Andrew Christ, the organization's managing director of government affairs.  

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