Doubling board's pay doesn't suit everyone


HOWARD COUNTY Board of Education Chairwoman Susan Cook said a curious thing the other day while promoting a proposal to raise board members' salaries a whopping 100 percent. All the calls she's received about the pay raise, she said, have been favorable.

Not only has she received no negative comments, she said, but some people have expressed the opinion that the $12,000 the board is seeking per member is not enough. If this is true, let me be the first to say we have reached an historic moment in the life of our nation. How often is it that taxpayers call their elected officials to tell them how much they appreciate them, and want to double their salaries to prove it? I know more than a few public servants who wouldn't survive the shock of such a call.

It's not that I doubt that Ms. Cook is getting the calls she says she is, although I do suspect that the most sincere expressions are coming from friends. The naysayers, on the other hand, aren't calling board members to tell them what they think at all.

You can imagine how awkward that would be:

Caller: "Ms. Cook, I'm calling about the proposal to double board members' salaries."

Ms. Cook: "Yes, yes, I know what you're going to say. Thank you so much for realizing how valuable we are, not to mention deserving of this unprecedented dip into the public trough."

Caller: "Well, actually Ms. Cook, I was going to say that under the circumstances, given the school system's tough financial straits and all, our group thought the board might consider giving some of its current salary back."

Ms. Cook: "Hello, hello! I'm afraid we've been disconnected."

Apparently members of the Howard County legislative delegation, which ultimately must line up behind the proposed salary hike if it is to pass the General Assembly, are getting the calls that Susan Cook is missing.

A recent survey of delegates found no supporters for the amount school board members want, although there was agreement that a smaller raise may be possible. Even among such legislators as Democratic Del. Frank Turner, who might be expected to support an education initiative, the response to the board's request was chilly.

Given this low level of enthusiasm, one might expect the board to launch a huge public relations campaign to sell its proposal to the general public, or at least to the delegation.

But I suspect that no such campaign is in the offing. The simple pTC fact is that no matter how deserving board members may be to have their salaries increased, a 100 percent raise is a symbolic hurdle that is nearly impossible for most of us to clear.

The pros

I've heard most of the arguments on the pro side and, frankly, I think some have validity.

* Board members in neighboring Montgomery and Prince George's counties already earn $12,000 and $13,000 respectively, with the chairman of each school board receiving $14,000. Although both those counties have much larger student populations, board members in Howard point out that in Prince George's and Montgomery, board members are elected within smaller districts.

* County Council members earn close to $28,000 a year, and board members feel they work at least as hard as council members. As much as I would like to follow some of them around, I'm not able to verify this conclusively.

* Board members haven't received a raise in the last 10 years. Teachers in the county during that same period have had their salaries increased by as much as $24,000. The entire increase proposed for school board members wouldn't be enough to hire one new teacher.

* The school system is reputedly No. 1 in Maryland in terms of student achievement. Board members should be rewarded for their role in this success.

The cons

The problem with all this is that the arguments for the raise pale when set alongside the arguments against it.

* Comparisons with other school systems fall flat. Montgomery and Prince George's officials, though elected by district, are responsible for the entire school system once they get on the board, and both systems are much more urban and complex than Howard's.

* Comparing test scores alone cannot be the yardstick by which to measure the board's worthiness. In fact, the flip side of this argument is that Howard board members should be earning less than anywhere in the state because they have the luxury of such a relatively gifted population.

* Board members argue that their work is time-consuming, but what if a closer look turns up some slackers in their ranks? Some members of the delegation want to take a closer look, and they should.

At least, they have the public relations' momentum on their side. Someone needs to call board members and tell them that.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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