The Wichita school board
A Wichita school board meeting. Kansas Rep. Rebecca Schmoe said school districts in the state's large metro areas raised concerns about the heavy workloads boards face without pay. (Courtesy image/USD 259)

For 50 years, serving on a school board in Kansas meant committing to hours of work — maybe as much as a typical full-time job — for no pay. 

But now, a recent change in state law allows school boards to decide whether to pay their members and how much.

There have been concerns about the workloads of school boards, particularly in large metro areas like Wichita and Kansas City, where members sometimes work 40 hours a week on school board business, said Rep. Rebecca Schmoe, a Republican from Ottawa who proposed the change this year.  

That amount of unpaid work isn’t realistic for many people with other employment, she said. 

“If we want the best possible people for these positions, if we want true representation of our communities, we have to make it available to the people who do work everyday 8-to-5, paycheck to paycheck jobs,” she said. 

It isn’t clear which school boards, if any, are considering paying members. In the Kansas City area, the Blue Valley school board is working on a policy amendment to clarify that it will remain unpaid. 

Some organizations, including the Kansas Association of School Boards, are concerned that paying school board members will take money out of classrooms. It could also create a “weird dynamic” as board members negotiate teacher salaries while being paid themselves, KASB executive director Brian Jordan said. 

Missouri school board members are still unpaid. 

Paying board members can help them balance priorities of life and work

Before she decided to run for the Blue Valley school board, incoming board president Jodie Dietz had to gauge her other responsibilities, including that her children were older and more independent. Board service can “take a tremendous amount of your time,” she said. 

In addition to meeting at least monthly, board members spend time reading materials to prepare for votes, serving on committees, participating in training, fielding communication from district residents, attending school events and meeting with administrators. 

Board members in urban school districts can have heavier workloads because they often have more constituents, more schools and contentious issues to tackle, said Thomas Alsbury, a professor at Northwest University and an expert on school governance, which includes school boards. 

The argument that the unpaid time commitment could deter board members who lack flexibility in their work and family lives has held some sway elsewhere in the nation. 

Paying members as much as $33,000 annually could encourage racial and ethnic diversity by defraying the costs of missing work or hiring a babysitter, Denver school board members argued earlier this year. The Denver board was one of the few in Colorado to begin paying new members after a 2021 law change. 

Research shows that school boards with members from different occupations and socioeconomic backgrounds perform better compared to appointed boards of education experts, Alsbury said, but he doesn’t know of research tying board pay to improved diversity. 

Instead, he worries that paying board members enough for them to treat the position as a full-time job could tempt them to micromanage, which research shows has negative impacts. Alsbury suggested districts could solve the workload issue by hiring more staff to assist board members. 

How districts might make school board pay decisions

School boards have “absolute local control” over whether to pay their members, Schmoe said, allowing them “that wiggle room to be able to decide what is best for their area.”

Based on what has happened in other states, Alsbury predicts larger urban districts will consider paying members while smaller ones will be less likely to do so. 

Timing matters too. Schools boards are unlikely to raise their own pay until after election season, Schmoe said. Ahead of the elections, constituents across the state should be asking candidates questions about board pay. 

In Wichita, District 3 school board candidate Ngoc Vuong said getting paid for the role isn’t a priority for him. He suggested that any pay should be capped at the salary of the lowest-paid employee. At-large school board candidate Melody McCray-Miller said she supports the law change because it could encourage more people to run for office. 

It’s not clear whether anyone tracks state policies on school board pay nationwide, Alsbury said. The National School Boards Association told The Beacon it doesn’t have that information.

The association surveyed its members in 2018 and found that more than 60% of them did not receive annual salaries, and more than 70% did not receive per-meeting stipends. Only 11% received a salary of more than $5,000 per year. Per-meeting stipends were typically less than $500.

Jordan said he hasn’t heard from any school boards in Kansas that are interested in paying members — not even this month during a meeting of representatives from 19 districts of varying sizes.

School board members are generally interested in service, not money, Jordan said. 

“It’s kind of a running joke with school board members that the pay is not what keeps them coming back; they get paid zero. And so, the rewards that they see (are) strong schools, kids thriving.”

The Blue Valley school board wants to make it clear that it won’t receive pay, Dietz said, because members want to ensure “as much money as possible stays in the general fund for our kids.”

She expects a unanimous vote in July to write into board policy that members are unpaid. 

Trace Salzbrenner contributed to this report.

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.