The pay raise that an independent panel just awarded the L.A. Unified School District board is eye-popping, for sure. The members' annual compensation will come fairly close to tripling, with the full-timers on the board seeing a raise from $45,627 to $125,000.
The public could understandably see this as wild; it is a little wild. In a school district that barely patches its annual budget together, where the students' needs add up to much more than the inflow of dollars, where the board has certainly made plenty of bad mistakes, the people at the top suddenly will see their pay blossom to comfortable new levels.
And yet, it's the right thing to do.
We could quibble over the exact amount: Should a board member make as much as the most experienced teachers? As much as a principal? More than a state legislator? Does it have to be six figures, the symbolic cutoff for more elite incomes? Those are questions best left to the compensation panel that made the decision — a committee that is outside the school board's jurisdiction and that gains nothing by settling on a generous figure.
But whatever the specific sum, a very big pay raise is long overdue; in fact, this page said as much four years ago. L.A. schools aren't what they were a couple of decades ago. The board isn't just responsible for the six or seven hours of daily lessons the district's schools provide to more than 600,000 children and teenagers — a big job on its own. It also oversees after-school care, parent centers and some basic healthcare. It's a major feeder of kids too, supplying more than half of the weekday's nourishment for many of its students through the lunch program and the largest breakfast program in the nation.
Paying board members the same as beginning teachers — who are guaranteed pay increases as they gain experience, unlike the elected board members — was always an idea that sounded noble on paper but made little sense in the real world.
The district has succeeded in getting more parents involved in their children's education, but that means parents expect attentive constituent service from their elected board members when they can't get satisfaction at the school level.
The board has come under justified criticism from many, including us, for various mistakes over the years. But that doesn't mean its members don't work hard for their constituents. On the contrary, they put in long hours that include many nights and weekends. The one board member in recent history who had a full-time outside job — Tamar Galatzan, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney — lost her seat in good part because her constituents saw her as unavailable and less involved. In other words, the public might like to say this should be a part-time job, but it really wants full-time involvement.
School board members have managed on their small salaries in various ways. Some, though they put in long hours for the district, have taken only part-time pay of about $25,000 and supplemented the money with outside gigs. (If they continue to take outside money, the part-time pay they'll receive from the district will be boosted to $50,000.) Others have had personal resources or family support; three of the current board members are retired school administrators with pensions.
But school board candidates shouldn't have to be well-off or retired to run for a seat. It's particularly hard for current teachers, who understand L.A.'s educational needs at the ground level, to commit to a four-year post that might stretch into additional terms. Because of conflicts of interest and time, they have to give up their teaching jobs for a post that, up to now, has paid far worse. Good pay also might attract more working parents in the district, a voice the board could use. On the downside, by boosting the full-time salary $20,000 above that of state legislators, the compensation committee may have turned the district's school board seats into just another stop on the career politicians' circuit.
This is the biggest district in the country with an elected board. And its job stretches beyond the students to their families, the employers who will or won't find the graduates worthy of hiring, and the larger regional economy that depends on having a well-educated workforce to attract good jobs to the area.
If the board's members don't do their job well, they deserve to be thrown out at the next election. But while they're in the job, their salaries should reflect the demanding nature of the work.