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Aurora and Denver school boards discuss pay for board members

Students, some masked, some not, sit in a class with colorful chairs
The Aurora school board has drafted a proposal to pay board members $150 per day.
Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Update: The Aurora school board received no feedback from the public at its special meeting Thursday evening. Kayla Armstrong-Romero, board president, said taking a vote before Election Day would be too rushed and encouraged the board to find more ways to engage the community before trying to pass the proposal.

Aurora’s school board could become one of the first in the state to pay board members, while Denver school board members have started discussing a similar proposal.

In Colorado, school board members serve as volunteers, and have not been allowed to be compensated for their time. But a law passed in April changed that.

Proponents of paying school board members hope to remove a barrier so that more diverse candidates can consider serving, although some experts question whether pay itself will make a big difference.

The Aurora school board has drafted a proposal to pay board members $150 per day, for up to three days per month, when they show they’ve had official board duties.

The board now is seeking feedback from the community on Thursday night. If they proceed, they would schedule a vote before Election Day.

According to the new law, school boards can pass a resolution in a public meeting to compensate board members by up to $150 per day for not more than five days per week. Board members who vote to approve such pay could not receive it during their current term.

That’s part of the reason Aurora school board members want to hurry a vote on their proposal before the election. Four of seven seats are up for grabs, and only one incumbent is running for reelection. New board members could receive the pay, if the outgoing members vote to pass the resolution. Incumbent Debbie Gerkin would be eligible for the pay if re-elected. She said she would abstain from discussion and a vote.

Initially, the board considered enabling new board members to receive compensation right away, but that would mean only half of the board would be receiving pay while others could not.

An attorney for the district suggested that another option would be to approve the change before the election, but not have it take effect until two years from now, after the next election for the remaining three seats, so that all board members could start receiving pay at the same time.

“Some people have to work in the daytime, some people don’t,” said Kevin Cox, a proponent of board pay and an outgoing board member who’s not running for reelection. “Some people can make more phone calls because they’re not working a 12-hour shift or what have you. This is a good idea.”

Cox, who has worked as a truck driver, described how serving on the board has been a challenge.

“That first two years, I called in for every board meeting or I missed or I made a really hard struggle and it cost a lot of money,” Cox said. “If I know for a fact that’s not going to be a problem for the next generation of board members, that’s the best thing.”

The district’s attorney also told board members that their resolution should be clear and specific when it comes to board duties eligible for pay, to avoid problems, as he said board members would begin to be subject to scrutiny by the state’s ethics commission.

Aurora serves one of the most diverse areas of the state. Its seven-member board includes four Black members, and one Hispanic member.

The Denver school board discussed the potential for paying board members at a work session Monday. Many members agreed it could help diversify a seven-member board that is, at the moment, majority white and middle class or wealthy in a district where most students are Black and Hispanic and come from low-income families.

Tay Anderson, who submitted the topic for discussion, is a young Denver Public Schools graduate and one of two Black members on the board. He testified in favor of the legislation that last spring opened the door to compensation. In an interview, he said he’s had to turn down job offers because employers couldn’t accommodate his board meeting schedule.

The board has three public meetings a month that start at 4:30 p.m., in addition to smaller committee meetings, individual meetings with district staff, training sessions, and ceremonies such as graduations. Many board members also regularly visit schools and respond to crises. In addition, board members have said they sometimes get hundreds of emails each day.

“I strongly believe that not having the ability to be compensated blocks so many people of color from actually serving on this board,” Anderson told the board.

“Only privileged people can access this position of power. ... This is an opportunity for us as a district to open the access up to BIPOC communities and single parents who want to be able to serve their community,” he said, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.

But despite agreeing with that idea, several board members had questions.

Barbara O’Brien’s questions were the most pointed. O’Brien is a former Colorado lieutenant governor who has served on the board eight years and is barred by term limits from running again. She’ll leave the board after next month’s election.

“We have to really talk about what it would mean in terms of the loss of the integrity of the board if there’s any question that we’re doing any of our work to be able to generate a per diem,” she said.

Angela Cobián, the board’s treasurer, whose four-year term is nearly up and who is not running for reelection, said she’d want to understand the fiscal impact before voting. Denver is already facing financial challenges, including an expected decrease in state per-pupil funding.

“I am also extra sensitive to things that might require additional resources when we are already under-resourced — both from the cumulative impact of a drastically underfunded school system ... at the level of the state, on top of the declining enrollment that we’re seeing,” she said.

The Denver board debated but did not decide Monday when to vote on the matter. Brad Laurvick floated the idea of voting on the concept before the Nov. 2 election and then working out the details later so the board members elected next month could be paid in the near future.

Four of the seven board seats are up for election. Only one incumbent, board President Carrie Olson, is running for reelection and would be eligible for the pay.

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