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Commissioners debate raises for school board members

When is the best time to give the local school board members a 600 percent raise?

Surely not now, several Shelby County commissioners argued Monday. The board just laid off hundreds of teachers, custodians and bus drivers because of austerity cuts and a controversial merger. What will it look like to turn around and then give the folks who administered those layoffs raises? Besides, it’s a job you do out of the goodness of your heart, not for the money.

Now more than ever, other commissioners argued.

The local school system is seen as a national model now because of its experiment on teacher effectiveness, the merger and a new state-run district. What will it look like when people see that Shelby’s board members make only $4,200 a year? Is that how much Shelby County values them? That’s not enough to pay for gas, let alone reimburse them for the countless hours they’re missing from their full-time jobs. With such low pay, Shelby County is only getting the board members who can afford it, not those who are qualified.

For the first time in 25 years, the Shelby County School board could get a $20,000 raise, a recommendation that came out of the Shelby County Commission’s education committee last week. With the raise, the board will receive $25,000. The board’s chair will make $26,000.

It won’t be voted on until it is debated at least two more times. But only seven members currently support the measure, according to a preliminary vote taken at the end of the debate Monday. At least nine commissioners need to support it in order for it to pass.

Most of the commissioners seemed pitted in their stance Monday. There was lots of yelling and grumbling and interruptions from the chairman who spoke about cordiality and proper procedure.

“We’re seen as a model around the country right now,” said commissioner Melvin Burgess, who is also employed with the district. ”We either invest today or we pay the back end when these kids end up in jail.”

“They knew it was a thankless job when they took it,” said commissioner Chris Thomas. ”This sends a very bad message to teachers and employees.”

How much board members get paid is an age-old debate.

According to a 2010 National School Board Association survey, almost half of the board members surveyed in districts with more than 15,000 students don’t make any money for serving on the board. But, for those that do get paid, only 9 percent make less than $5,000 a year.

Several people at Monday’s meeting pointed out that Shelby County pays its school board members less than Nashville, Knoxville and Cleveland school districts.

Meanwhile, Shelby school board members are reminding the public that this isn’t their proposal.

Chairman Kevin Woods said in a TV interview recently that, “We have not asked for any pay increases. We signed on for a tough job we knew only paid $4,000. We were prepared to take on those responsibilities. I think we’ve done that.”

Board member David Reaves had this to say on Twitter today.

The next hearing will take place on Jan. 13.

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