In Cash-Strapped Districts, Spending Gets New Scrutiny

By Peter Schmidt — April 29, 1992 5 min read

The financial crisis that many urban districts face has focused renewed attention on the pay, perquisites, and spending of school-board members.

Boards of Contention
Boards of Contention: Introduction
Historians Cite ‘Steady Erosion’ in Local Control
In Cash-Strapped Districts, Spending Gets New Scrutiny
Tales of Two Boards: Under State Order, Dallas Tries To Clean Up Its Act
Tales of Two Boards: In ‘Good’ N.J. District, Board Tries to Find Its Way
Unions Strive to Elect Friendly Board Members
‘Minimal’ Training May Not Fit Boards’ Needs
Seven Days a Week
Up for Discussion
In Promoting Change, Board Support Is Essential
Kentucky Lawmakers Redefine Power of School Boards
After 52 Years, ‘Hard Worker’ Is Ousted From Office

In the District of Columbia, where the school board has been called the most expensive in the nation, the scrutiny has been particularly intense.

According to a 1990 report, the 11-member board employed approximately 35 staff members, including a full-time secretary and up to three assistants for each board member. In addition to an office at the central administrative building, each board member has a ward office. Further, although membership on the board is considered a part-time position, board members were paid $27,575 in 1990.

“The image that gets portrayed is of a board that seems to want to do everything ‘Cadillac-style,’'' says Jim E. Ford, who analyzes the budget of the Washington school board as the staff director of the city council’s committee on education.

“Sometimes the question arises: What are we getting for it?’' he says.

R. David Hall, the board’s president, argues that the board “has done some considerable belt-tightening’’ and has been reduced to asking for private donations to cover some basic activities.

Members also struggle with “a pretty onerous workload,’' he says.

$26,627 for Travel

Controversies over board spending have not been limited to big cities, however.

In Louisiana, the St. Tammany Parish school board touched off a furor recently when it sent all 15 members to conventions in distant cities. Last year, all of the board members attended the National School Boards Association’s convention in San Francisco at a cost of $26,627.

The issue of board expenditures “is something that should be public,’' says Luvern L. Cunningham, an expert on school governance who has consulted with school boards for 25 years. “It requires examination on the part of the board periodically.’'

Mr. Cunningham notes that the perquisites of most school boards have been cut significantly in recent years. Recently, he says, they have been asked to cut back on some items--such as training retreats--that are “a very legitimate public expenditure.’'

In Washington, a government advisory commission concluded that there was significant fat in the board’s budget. It recommended that the board cut its staff by 50 percent, immediately close all ward offices, and eliminate board members’ salaries, effective this year.

Mr. Ford asserts that the board’s annual budget is $1.8 million, including a $165,000 fund that can be used to pay for travel, and $132,000 in “discretionary funds’’ that can be used for such activities as constituent mailings.

Mr. Hall says the figures are wrong and reflect an unfamiliarity with how the board’s money was spent. The board, he says, has a total budget of only $1.6 million, has “drastically’’ reduced its staff, and has cut its travel budget to $2,000 per member to be spent only on specified conferences.

“Our budget was so tight that, when our [new] superintendent came, we could not afford to give him a reception,’' Mr. Hall says. “What we had to do was raise the money privately through the sale of tickets at $12.50 each.’'

‘Staying in Touch’ With Schools

The issue of the board members’ personal staff members has been particularly touchy.

While some people--such as Mr. Ford--say the staff aides do “very valuable’’ work analyzing budgets and subcommittee work for their members, others have charged that staff members primarily spend their time meddling in administration or politicking in their bosses’ wards.

The members of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education also have field employees. Richard K. Mason, the special counsel to the board, says the field aides, who are paid about $40,000 a year, help board members stay in touch with the schools in their wards, which may be long drives away from the central-board office.

Such a position proved to be a springboard to public office for Jeff Horton, a former field employee who was elected to the school board in 1991.

But Julie Korenstein, another board member, recently opted not to have a field aide, asserting that the money for the position was not well spent. Instead, she had the money spent on programs in the schools in her district.

Los Angeles board members are paid up to $24,000 a year, receive full health and medical benefits, can spend up to $7,000 a year for travel, and are given a district car, with expenses paid, for work-related travel.

Until 1986, members of the Detroit Board of Education had six chauffeurs to drive them to appointments and run errands. The practice ended after state legislators balked at the $250,000 annual cost of the perquisite.

While such frills may seem excessive--especially given the poverty from which many urban students hail--Mr. Cunningham says it is instructive to take a historical view of the situation.

Ten or 20 years ago, he points out, it was not unusual for members of urban school boards to be given cars, drivers, their own offices and secretaries, and sometimes even club memberships. The boards, all of whose members typically were white, came under little scrutiny for their spending, he says.

“When we shifted over to having African-Americans on boards,’' he says, “there was a lot of criticism of perks’’ and public pressure to reduce them.

“It was not fair to criticize minorities for enjoying perquisites that had been standard practice for whites over a number of years,’' Mr. Cunningham says. “There was obviously, among minority populations, a sense of discrimination when these kinds of changes occurred.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: In Cash-Strapped Districts, Spending Gets New Scrutiny