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Hanover School Board Wants a Raise. State Lawmakers Have to Sign Off.

Sign reading "Hanover County School Board"
Hanover County's school board is seeking approval from Virginia's General Assembly to authorize a 50 percent pay increase. (Photo by Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The majority of school boards across the country and in Virginia are elected by the public. But there are a handful of localities like Hanover County and Hopewell where school board members are appointed by members of the local government.

This year, Virginia lawmakers are weighing legislation to remove fixed salary caps for appointed members, and instead, align salary rules for both elected and appointed school board members. It’s slated for a final vote in Virginia’s House of Delegates Thursday.

Elected salaries are determined in part due to the population of a locality; the greater the population, the more money members are eligible to receive under Virginia law. Funding is allocated in part from the state and locality.

But the process for appointed school board members to get a raise is different. Virginia law outlines specific dollar amounts that appointed school board salaries can’t exceed unless localities appeal for a raise through introduced legislation.

For example, Hanover County school board members got a raise from $4,600 to $8,000 in 2006 but had to get legislation introduced and passed to authorize it. Last fall, the Hanover County School Board voted to ask permission from the General Assembly to authorize a 50 percent salary hike, from $8,000 to $12,000. In Richmond City, school board members earn $10,111.11 on average with a population of 228,783. Under the proposed raise, Hanover County School Board members would earn $1,888.89 more than Richmond members despite having a population 47 percent smaller.

Average salary for school boards by locality population. (Salary Data: VDOE FY 2018/19 Annual School Report ( xlsx)/Population Data: US Census 2018 estimates ( web))

“They've [lawmakers] got 58,000 bills, and they're looking at state-wide things, and the salary of a school board is not really a top issue,” said John Axselle, Hanover County’s school board chairman. “So what we're trying to do is have them rule it so we can now go to our supervisors. If we wish to have an increase, we can ask our supervisors to give it to us."

Legislation to help grant them that raise has sailed through the Virginia legislature without much fanfare or discussion.

“I don’t think that for their work and their contributions that they’re compensated nearly enough,” said Del. Delores McQuinn (D- Richmond). “We ought to be a little more considerate about the amount of resources that they put into the position.”

The bill’s sponsor, Del. “Buddie” Fowler (R- Hanover), points out the bill wouldn’t allow for an unlimited salary hike. State code specifies salary ranges based on population, with allowable five percent annual raises to adjust for inflation.

“They cannot just automatically give themselves like a million dollar pay increase, that’s not what it does,” Fowler said.

But, the proposal still makes some Hanover residents like Randy White uncomfortable. White runs a Hanover-based nonprofit called Love of Learning.

“It just seems like if this HB 1557 passes, that Virginia will be rewarding a system of government that's less democratic, because it's appointed, one that'll be less responsive to the public,” White said.

Robert Barnette, president of the Hanover County NAACP chapter, agrees. “I was shocked, really, that someone would recommend a 50 percent raise for themselves,” Barnette said.

Barnette thinks a raise for Hanover’s school board members is unwarranted, in part because he says the current appointees have been unresponsive.  

“We tried to get them to hire more African American faculty. They haven't done that,” Barnette said. “We tried to get them to administer discipline fairly. They haven't done that.”

Hanover County School Board Chairman John Axselle says he “begs to differ” that the board hasn’t listened to the NAACP, and says he thinks the board is “very much in touch” with the community. Axselle says just because the board is appointed, it doesn’t mean they’re less accountable to the public.

“Being appointed by him [Aubrey Stanley], there’s a closer relationship and a relationship of trust that as we work together on educational issues, he’s more likely to work with me if he doesn’t have the concern that I might be running for election against him,” Axselle said. “A wise man told me one time if I wanted to remain appointed, act elected.”

According to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, over 90 percent of school boards nationally are elected. Larry Eichel, project director for the Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative, said that he found appointed boards to be more common for school boards without taxing authority. No school boards in Virginia have taxing authority, making Virginia an outlier. 

According to the Virginia ACLU, four state legislative studies conducted between 1918 and 1927 concluded that appointed school boards should be abandoned in favor of elected school boards.

Virginia also became the last state to allow elected school boards in 1992, when Governor Douglas Wilder was in office. Wilder now worries that many elected school board members use their elected positions to springboard political careers.

But for Barnette, the appointed school board system is unfair, and a stark reminder of Virginia’s Jim Crow past, when during Massive Resistance, appointed school boards kept black people out of power. Barnette says not much has changed today.

“When there is an opening, we go out and canvass the neighborhood to see who would be interested. And time and time again, those folks are not selected. We've had principals, we've had educators, people with doctor’s degrees, and they choose people who either have helped them in their election or people who they know personally,” Barnette said. “It's totally unfair. Nepotism, cronyism, you name it.”

Barnette even threw his hat into the ring for an appointment several years ago, and has supported other members of the community advocating for a spot like Scott Bray, pastor of Springfield Baptist Church in Mechanicsville. Bray says while he received an in-person interview, he was told prior to the interview that someone else had already been appointed to the school board seat. He was ultimately offered a position in parks and recreation, which Bray said he almost didn’t accept.

“It’s disappointing when you step out on faith and try to be a part of the community and it’s still the ‘good old boys’ syndrome,” Bray said. 

“People like me don’t have a voice. We’re not being heard, we’re not being seen.”

The school board seat for Hanover’s Mechanicsville district is currently open. According to a spokesperson for the Hanover County Board of Supervisors, anyone who wishes to be considered as a candidate for the vacant seat must announce themselves (or be announced) during the Feb. 26 board meeting’s public hearing beginning at 7 p.m. The board is expected to make the appointment on March 11th. 

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.
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