All school committee members deserve compensation

Stipends would increase access, boost diversity

MASSACHUSETTS EDUCATION Commissioner Jeff Riley’s push to have elementary students back in classrooms, which required school committee action in each district, shows just how important school committees are to public education. Indeed, one of the many lessons of the ongoing pandemic is the vital role that local school committees play as policymaking bodies across the Commonwealth.

Between school closures and re-openings decisions, testing and cleaning protocols, and regular union negotiations, school committees have taken center stage in managing the various pivots that districts have had to make to adjust to COVID-19. Yet despite their critical public leadership role, most school committee members are not compensated, creating barriers to access, equity, and diversity in elected office.

With the education of children traditionally considered the purview of women and tied to motherhood, local school boards have benefited greatly from women’s active participation. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of that work has historically gone uncompensated. The limited data currently available suggest that the vast majority of cities provide a stipend to school committee members, but that towns rarely do, even though the responsibilities are similar. In fact, many municipalities across Massachusetts offer no stipend whatsoever to these key decision-makers.

According to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, while some towns in the state do offer compensation to school committee members, the precise number is unknown given the self-selected reporting of data.

A compensation study conducted for the city of Beverly by UMass Boston’s Collins Center for Public Management shows that three of the municipality’s ten comparable communities offer no stipend to school committee members, but all offer city council compensation. As we planned to bring this issue up in Arlington, we surveyed Arlington’s 12 comparable communities and found that nine offer no stipend at all and three provide compensation ranging from $4,500 (Watertown) to $10,800 (Medford).

Opportunities to serve in this essential education policymaking role should be open to all, including those for whom even a relatively small stipend may make a difference. For instance, individuals with limited income, single parents, young adults just gaining financial independence, those with nontraditional work hours, and persons caring for special needs children, young children, or elders may find it easier to run for this office with some level of monetary support.

Even for individuals with moderate incomes or those who do not have significant caregiving needs in their family, such a stipend might make it more likely for them to commit the time needed for the role. In pre-pandemic times, one of us who served two terms on school committee estimated spending about 10 hours a week on school committee-related business during slow times, and up to 20 hours a week when negotiating a complex contract or tackling a difficult issue such as redistricting or decisions about facility overcrowding due to enrollment growth.

Clearly, on an hourly basis, a stipend of a few thousand dollars would be significantly less than the federal or Massachusetts minimum wage. Yet, while most compensation levels are minimal by many measures, even a small amount could help defray child care costs associated with meeting participation or balance out lost paid-work time. Moreover, financial support for the position may make it more likely that individuals with perspectives currently under-represented – such as persons of color and new Americans – will step up to run and help promote more equitable policymaking.

It’s past time to acknowledge the significant contributions made by school committee members — during pandemic and non-pandemic times — and offer compensation commensurate with the position. Even a modest level of compensation may help increase access, diversify membership, and ensure equity in this important office.

Christa Kelleher, a town meeting member in Arlington, is the research and policy director at the McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston. Jennifer Susse was a school committee member in Arlington from 2014-2020.