Should school board members be paid? A new Colorado bill would allow it
Eagle County education stakeholders weigh the pros and cons of legislation that could increase accessibility and diversity on school boards
While school board members across Colorado are elected officials, they’re also volunteers and unpaid.
However, a new bill is working its way through the Colorado General Assembly that would allow the state’s school board members to be compensated for the first time. The bill has already passed the House and will face a hearing in the Senate on April 22.
Serving on the board of a school district is a big responsibility and time commitment that comes with making a variety of complex, difficult decisions. Current members of Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education are expected to attend meetings, serve on committees and maintain a wide breadth of knowledge on the issues they face as a board.
In order to take on the commitment, members must make personal and professional sacrifices. As it stands, members must have a sufficient income, a flexible job (or an understanding boss) to serve.
“I believe that our school board feels a weighty responsibility to meet the demands of their jobs. I also believe that they have the best interests for Eagle County students in mind while making each decision, and deciding how to vote,” said Karen Kolibaba, a fifth grade teacher at Gypsum Elementary and president of the Eagle County Education Association.
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Drawn into service
The new bills raises the question of why board members run for their positions — out of a sense of civic duty or to do a job? The seven members of the local district’s school board were each drawn into public service for unique reasons, but each of them said they are doing it for the good of the community and out of a passion for education.
Ted Long currently serves on the school board and as the assistant dean of instruction at Colorado Mountain College. For him, joining the board was a way to make a positive impact on the curriculum at the high schools in the area. It’s a role that shouldn’t come with compensation, he said.
“In my opinion paying someone to serve on the school board doesn’t seem to fit right with the narrative of serving the public,” Long said. “It’s just something we do to help benefit our communities and that fits better with the narrative to me than let’s give them a little stipend or whatever.”
For Michelle Stecher, current board member and executive director at Mountain Youth, serving on the board was the perfect way to fulfill her civic duty while doing something she was passionate about.
“I always like to have like one big volunteer/service role at a time. For me, this happened to be a really good fit with my passion for education and being able to be a good liaison for our community,” she said.
Starting as a PTA member with a kindergartner and working her way up through various PTA positions and board committees, Kate Cocchiarella is now the president of the Eagle County Board of Education.
“I do it out of love and dedication to the kids,” Cocchiarella said. “The work that I’ve done on the schools has just been so rewarding and there is just no money that can compensate for what we do, quite frankly.”
Should board members be paid, it’s hard to say whether this notion of service and civic duty would change.
“If it’s more of a job, it might not attract people who have that really genuine passion about education and improving the system,” Stecher said.
However, for these current board members, it’s easy to say money isn’t a factor. Each of them was able to make the necessary sacrifices and had enough flexibility, both with time and money, to take the gig.
“Right now, the only way you can serve on the board is if you have the financial security to work 30 to 40 hours a month, or more, for free,” Cocchiarella said. “That eliminates a whole group of people.”
Diversity and equity
Many advocates for the bill support the notion that it would increase accessibility, and therefore diversity, on school boards. This is something that is particularly prevalent in Eagle County as the district contains a diverse population of students and families. According to the latest data, the student population is 52.5 percent Hispanic/Latino, 44.2 percent white, 2.1 percent multi-race, .8 percent Asian, .3 percent Native American and .4 percent African American.
“In Eagle County, we have a student population that has not always been reflected or represented in our board of education members,” Kolibaba said. “Our average working people often can’t afford to take on the responsibility of the school board position because of their job commitments and that leaves only those who are financially able to do it, which more often than not, shrinks the pool of diversity.”
It’s for this reason that both Cocchiarella and Stecher support the bill.
“I do think to get more representation that is reflective of our community, compensation would be a huge bonus,” Stecher said. “I think if we have a more diverse representation on the school board, the benefits will trickle down to the students that we serve and their families, because the board can speak from a more informed perspective and engage in respectful dialogue, bringing in unique perspectives.”
For others, there is some question as to whether or not compensating board members would be enough to increase diversity on the school board. Many of the current board members were recruited to serve on the board, a practice that wouldn’t necessarily be changed by money. This recruitment process could, however, be used to support for diverse individuals to run, according to Long.
“I think there’s other ways to get the diversity and inclusion. We should be more active in trying to find those people and make sure that they are representative and know what they’re talking about and they have an interest in it,” Long said.
While the Eagle County board has not had any formal strategies to recruit more diverse community members, the board members say there has been a deliberate push to do so.
“We’ve used an intentional recruitment strategy of really looking for people and encouraging or supporting people to run,” said Tessa Kirchner, vice president of the Education Foundation of Eagle County and a school former board member. “I question that the current bill is the method to get more equity of members on school boards.”
Rate of pay
Agree or disagree, there is still a lot that is unknown about how much school board members will be paid. As written, the Colorado bill does not establish the rate of pay. Instead, the bill would allow the school boards to vote on a compensation rate. This rate would not go into effect until after the next school board election.
“I believe a committee of stakeholders (educators, community members, etc.) should be responsible for determining the rate of pay,” Kolibaba said.
Long agrees that having the school board determine the rate of pay isn’t right. “It adds a level of scrutiny and public interest that is not positive,” he said.
In other states that do pay school boards, some pay board members a monthly stipend, usually a few hundred dollars, and others pay them annual salaries. What type or rate of pay Eagle County would adapt could impact the effectiveness of the bill to make the board more accessible.
“It would be a complex issue as the pay would need to be sufficient enough to help increase diversity, but not too exorbitant as not to encourage community members running for the wrong reasons,” Kolibaba said.
Whether stakeholders support or don’t support the bill, determining the rate of pay and where this money will come from is a big hurdle for them.
“School budgets are so tight, I can’t image that politically a school board is going to vote to give itself a lot of money and especially when there’s no money in education in Colorado,” Kirchner said. “I think the nominal amount anyone would get paid is not going to make a difference.”
And for some board members, the amount of money is a moot point. “I don’t think you can pay honestly enough for what the board members bring,” Long said.