Though they usually don’t involve large amounts of money, pay raises for elected officials can be among the most sensitive, scrutinized decisions made by government bodies. Unlike most of the rest of us, many public officials can opt to increase their own paychecks. And that’s why they must be transparent about the decisionmaking.
St. Paul school board members failed that test last week when they gave themselves a salary increase that nearly doubled their compensation. They increased the pay of six members from $10,800 to $18,000 and boosted the annual pay of the chairperson to $20,000.
It’s not that the dollar amounts were out of line. It has been 31 years since St. Paul board members received a raise, placing them far behind their counterparts in comparably sized metro-area districts. Most Minneapolis school board members earn $20,000 annually, while Anoka-Hennepin board members make $14,400 a year in their part-time positions.
The failure in St. Paul was in the process and lack of transparency. Without much advance notice under a vaguely worded agenda item about “salary comparisons,” the board quickly took its vote. There were no supporting documents available outlining a specific pay plan or any indication that there would be a final vote during last Tuesday’s meeting. So suddenly, it became an action item.
The board’s vice chairman, Steve Marchese, told a reporter that the issue had come up previously and that board members believed they were “signaling the public that this is coming.”
In the big picture of a $600 million general fund budget, the money spent on the raises is not that significant. But taxpayers care how their tax money is used and should feel confident that elected officials are being upfront about their compensation.
During the past two years, both the Minneapolis Park Board and the Minneapolis City Council have had similar problems. In both of those cases, the Editorial Board has been critical of the process and encouraged both to do a better job of being open and forthcoming.
To their credit, when the SPPS board pay hike was publicized, school leaders apologized.
In an e-mail to the Star Tribune last week, a district spokesman wrote: “SPPS students, families and staff — and the taxpayers of St. Paul — deserve and should expect open, honest and forthcoming information from their school district. Any lack of transparency, real or perceived, damages our credibility and tarnishes these valuable relationships. We sincerely apologize for these lapses. They were not planned, they were not intentional and we offer no excuses. Our efforts are now focused on making sure we do a better job of living up to our responsibilities and obligations as public servants.”
St. Paul school board members face difficult challenges and have a critical responsibility — ensuring that the city’s students get the best education possible. If the salary increases end up improving the quality and diversity of candidates for board positions, all the better. But that doesn’t excuse the flawed process that led to those pay hikes.