Voting to raise one's pay can make any elected official nervous, so when the St. Paul school board began in August to build the case for an increase, Jim Skelly took notice.
Skelly, a former Lakeville school board member and longtime city and schools spokesman, is interested, he said, in how officials make pay decisions. He gave St. Paul credit for its approach to the issue.
The St. Paul board hadn't seen an increase in 31 years. Current members earn less than their peers in the comparably sized Minneapolis and Anoka-Hennepin districts. But the fact that the board actually voted for a substantial pay bump during last week's meeting was surprising — and earned it a black eye for a lack of transparency.
Moving from $10,800 a year to $18,000 a year for six of the board members and $20,000 a year for the chairperson had been seen as a way to make the job more attractive to low-income candidates and to better reflect the weight of the board's responsibilities. The budget that the board oversees, for example, is larger than those of the city and Ramsey County, yet members make far less than council members and county commissioners.
"It wasn't a topic that hadn't been addressed before," Steve Marchese, the board's vice chairman, said of the proposal. "We felt we were signaling the public that this is coming."
But the agenda item posted for last Tuesday's meeting was billed simply as "salary comparisons (board salary)" — with no documents available for viewing onsite detailing a specific pay proposal or indicating there would be a vote — until it suddenly became an action item with two options for board members to consider. Making matters worse, viewers who tuned in to a cable broadcast at home were switched over inadvertently to NASA educational programming during part of the discussion.
The action occurred at the same meeting during which the board agreed to pay $525,000 to former teacher Aaron Benner to settle a whistleblower lawsuit — a vote that came with a written statement from board members that devoted more attention to the district's new strategic plan, "SPPS Achieves," than its thinking in the Benner case.
Roy Magnuson, a member of the open-government advocacy group St. Paul Strong and a former teacher who had joined Benner in publicly promoting higher expectations of students and greater consequences for those who misbehave, said he was watching the broadcast at home wondering what might be said about Benner. He was curious, too, about what was to be presented on the salary front.
His view, he said later, is that a government body would hear the specifics of a pay proposal and discuss it at one meeting and then bring it back later for action.
"That is real transparency," Magnuson said. "When you combine how this was done with the obfuscation of the Aaron Benner statement it's hard to believe that there wasn't willful design to keep the public in the dark."
Magnuson, it should be noted, also believes St. Paul school board members aren't paid enough.
Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said he was unaware of any other districts currently considering a pay increase.
"I think inherently you'll find that school boards generally like to put the money into programs," he said.
Making the case
The state's open-meeting law requires that at least one copy of any printed material prepared for members of a public body be available in the meeting room for inspection by the public.
It is not unusual, however, for the St. Paul School District to delay posting such material until it actually is presented to the board at the meeting.
A reporter who checked onsite materials immediately before and after the start of last Tuesday's meeting found nothing relating to pay other than the "salary comparisons" cover sheet.
After the options were presented during the meeting, Marchese said that board pay was an equity issue and seats shouldn't be filled only by people who can afford to serve.
Board Member Marny Xiong said then that being a board member was more than a part-time job and she noted that she was speaking three-plus hours into what often are lengthy meetings.
On Friday, Marchese told the Star Tribune that he believed there was public support for a pay raise. He was unaware, he said, that the public lacked access to materials outlining the pay plan. As for the salary specifics, he said that it was reported in August that Mary Vanderwert, a board member not seeking re-election this fall, suggested an increase of at least $5,000.
But the option chosen by the board goes beyond that by nearly doubling the chairman's pay and continuing to provide members with a health insurance subsidy — creating a total package that "leads the market" in school board compensation, interim human resources director Kenyatta McCarty told members Tuesday.
A majority of board members in the Minneapolis and Anoka-Hennepin districts make $20,000 a year and $14,400 a year, respectively.
Immediately after Tuesday's unanimous vote, reporters spoke with Kevin Burns, the district's communications director, about the lack of notice about what went before the board.
On Friday, Burns wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune: "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."