Janesville School Board Clerk Steve Huth has done the math: About 95 percent of school districts in Wisconsin pay their board members something, from the $15 members make per meeting in Whitewater to the $18,677 annual salary members earn in Milwaukee.

But Janesville has never paid city council members or school board members.

“That’s been the tradition in Janesville,” Huth said.

Pending the results of a study into the matter, the school board could soon consider a change. It voted 7-2 on Tuesday to have Huth and board Vice President Cathy Myers conduct the study. Both stressed doing the study doesn’t necessarily mean the district will eventually start paying board members.

“That’s putting the cart way before the horse,” Huth said.

Board members Karl Dommershausen and Dale Thompson proposed the study at a meeting last month.

Dommershausen argued the lack of compensation means some people, such as single parents or those who work second shift, might not be able to afford to serve on the school board. Paying members could help cover child-care costs or lost wages.

That, in turn, might expand the pool of candidates for office, Dommershausen and other board members argued.

The upcoming spring school board election will have five candidates, all incumbents, for five seats.

Dommershausen, who is partially retired, has a second-shift job. He has long been involved in educational boards at the local and state level and has served on the Rock County Board, but when attending a night meeting means missing a shift, he loses the income.

Huth and Myers will spend at least six weeks quantifying how much work goes into being a board member, including how many meetings members attend and how much time they spend on board work at home.

Myers was surprised by the number of districts, even very small ones, that pay their board members.

“I’m impressed that their budgets can handle it, but they’re the ones who have to decide what to do with their money,” Myers said. “That doesn’t mean that it will be right for us.”

Pay for performance

Districts approach paying their board members in a variety of ways, including:

  • Paying everyone a salary or paying everyone per-meeting stipends.
  • Paying everyone a salary and per-meeting stipends. In the Elcho School District, all board members receive $3,600 a year and $75 per meeting.
  • Paying only certain officers a salary. For example, in the Geneva J4 School District, the board clerk, president and treasurer receive $2,400 a year; other board members are not paid.
  • Paying an annual salary and per-meeting stipends to certain board officers and giving everyone else per-meeting stipends. In the Darlington School District, the board president receives a $2,000 salary and a $20 meeting stipend, the board clerk receives a $400 annual salary and a $20 per meeting stipend, and the remaining members get $20 per meeting.

Salary and stipend amounts vary district by district. Members make $50 a year in Arcadia while their counterparts in Milwaukee earn $18,677. Per-meeting stipends range from $15 in Whitewater to $300 in the Northland Pines School District.

Does the pay increase the number of people who run for office?

That’s difficult to say.

When The Gazette looked at recent elections in cities of comparable population and district enrollment, it was unclear from such a small sampling. Waukesha pays all its board members $6,400. In that city, there were more candidates than open school board seats in four of the last five elections.

Sun Prairie, where there were more candidates than open school board seats in three of the last five elections, pays its board members $5,000. Its board president receives $6,000. In Janesville, there were more candidates than open seats in three of the last five elections. In April, only five current board members will be running for their five seats.

Pay in the future?

Board members have said they would be opposed to granting themselves a pay increase. If a proposal to pay members was approved, it would have to go into effect in the future. Dommershausen proposed waiting three election cycles.

That would make it so that after the election this spring, a board member would have to win a new term before any approved compensation plan would take effect.

In a written statement, Dommershausen addressed some of the other questions surrounding pay. Board members, he wrote, would have the option of turning down pay or donating their pay to a cause of their choice. In the past, laws have made it impossible to turn down a salary without having to pay a tax penalty. That is no longer the case, Dommershausen said.

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