Our inclination has been to oppose proposals to pay people to serve on the Janesville school board or city council.
But for the second year in a row, only incumbents are running for seats on the school board. The field of city council candidates looks barren, too, with a single challenger and four incumbents vying for four seats.
This dearth of races has us rethinking the merits of an all-volunteer school board and city council. The current setup stems for a long-held belief that Janesville residents should give selflessly to their community, and we admire this spirit. But perhaps it’s time to pay these officials a modest stipend if it would get more people to run for office.
The current setup works fine for people with financial means and extra time, but it might discourage lower-income residents, especially those with children, from running for office. As school board member Karl Dommershausen has noted, some parents might need to hire a babysitter or miss a work shift to attend meetings. A stipend could help cover these members’ costs.
As it stands, five of the nine members of the Janesville School Board are retirees.
The school board voted Tuesday to study paying board members and examine whether compensation would lead to more people running for office. The city council hasn’t taken up the issue, but we encourage it to conduct a similar study.
Judging from what other areas pay their school board and city council members, nobody is getting rich by serving on these bodies. Their salaries represent a tiny fraction of local government budgets.
Pay for area school board members all are at or below $2,000 a year: Clinton Community Schools pays $800 per year; Brodhead, $1,050; Delavan-Darien, $1,500; and Milton, $2,000. Whitewater School District gives board members $15 per meeting. In Edgerton, members earn $300 annually and $40 per meeting. Parkview School Board members receive $55 per meeting.
The Janesville City Council policy of not paying members also makes it an outlier. The most recent data from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, a 2014 survey, shows nearly all cities pay their council members.
The story is the same at the county level. Most counties pay their members, with Rock County Board members receiving $50 per meeting, plus mileage. Members get $75 if a meeting goes beyond four hours.
Serving the community without pay is a noble pursuit, and we aren’t arguing volunteerism is dead. A modest stipend won’t turn members into money-hungry power brokers, but it might make the difference for those who want to serve but cannot because their budgets are too tight to incur additional expenses, whether from child care or lost work hours.
For this select group, a stipend could make running for office worthwhile and could lead to an outcome that we should all want: more contested elections and more diverse representatives.