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Staff photo by Robin Rudd/ Sen. Todd Gardenhire answers a question while speaking with the Times Free Press at the newspaper's offices on Nov. 15, 2019.

NASHVILLE — Saying local school board members across Tennessee aren't fairly compensated for the time they spend on an important and demanding job, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said Friday he is introducing a "pay equity" bill requiring board members receive the same salaries and benefits as people serving on county commissions or other local governing bodies.

"Serving on the board of a school district is a huge responsibility and time commitment that comes with making a variety of complex and weighty decisions," Gardenhire said in a news release. "These members are expected to attend meetings, serve on committees, meet with the public and maintain a wide breadth of knowledge on the issues they face as a board."

Add it all up and it requires school board members having to make both "significant personal and professional sacrifices," Gardenhire added. "Currently, many of our school boards in Tennessee are not fairly compensated. This legislation seeks to bring pay equity to these school board members for the critical work that they do for the future of our students, communities and state."

Tennessee has 147 local school districts, among them the Hamilton County school system.

Gardenhire said current state law requires school board members be paid at least $3 per meeting with the local governing body having final say on how much compensation there is. Several local governments already set pay and benefits for school board members at the same level as the governing body's, he noted.

"However, the majority of school boards are paid at a much lesser rate," Gardenhire said

That includes Hamilton County, a large portion of which Gardenhire represents, where county commissioners receive approximately $25,394 per year plus benefits, as compared to the approximately $12,365 per year received by school board members, the senator said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Commission pushes for salary authority)

"Most school board members work the same amount of time and sometimes longer hours than their counterparts on the local governing bodies," Gardenhire added. "Our education budget is over half of the county's total budget, which shows the importance we place on giving our students a quality education. Yet, the school board members who chart the course to carry out that mission receive less than half of the compensation paid to our county commissioners who appropriate education funds. This needs to change, and my bill will put parity and fairness into the system."

Gardenhire said he hasn't yet tried to line up a House sponsor for his proposal.

"I don't think that will be a problem," he said.

Hamilton County Commission chair Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, told the Times Free Press in a telephone interview that she would like to see more specifics of the proposal, as well as have time to study it to "see kind of the thought process behind it and what brought this all about initially.

"But here's the thing, I know this and I can honestly say this," Smedley said. "When I first ran for office in 2014, I never once asked what the pay was, and I did not know the benefits or anything until I got elected and went for orientation. So I don't think any of us are running for the pay. I want to speak for myself, I don't want to speak for anyone else. But most of us are running because we want to serve in some capacity."

In her case, Smedley said, "I wanted to serve my community. And I'll also say as a commissioner, and I'm not at all comparing, I think that school board members have a very important job. You know, they are the boss of the superintendent and everything. They deal with education, curriculum, student issues, parental issues, anything. I think that they all work hard, and I would say most of them would tell you they more than earn their pay."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Commission approves raise for sheriff's post, but not for Hammond)

She noted that so is any commissioner "who is doing the job right."

"Commissioners not only are looking at funding education, they also set the budgets for the sheriff's office, public safety, funding the county constitutional offices and other functions of county government. We have the entire budget which right now is an $835 million budget that we're responsible for," Smedley said. "So we've got a lot more that we're dealing with when it comes to funding than just education.

"With that being said, if you ask other commissioners and school board members, probably the majority of us are not serving for the pay and probably a lot of us probably don't know what the pay is. But we're serving because we want to serve the people. We want to make a difference in our communities, and I know that's the case for me," Smedley said.

"I would have to give some thought to what's being proposed before I say yes or no, especially when it involves spending more taxpayer dollars," she added.

In a telephone interview, Hamilton County school b oard chair Tucker McClendon of East Ridge commended Gardenhire for his effort, while agreeing with Smedley that pay isn't what drew him and his colleagues to seek their positions.

"No one runs for school board for the pay at all," McClendon said. "So I think one thing before pay is you have to be passionate about public education and making a difference in the community and driving change within the school system, essentially here in Hamilton County — what we've done in the last three years, four years."

McClendon noted that in the "grand scheme of things," Hamilton County's school budget is about $440 million, an amount he said is more than half of county government's entire budget.

"We oversee a superintendent, 6,000 employees, 45,000 students. And so one of the barriers to getting good quality people to run for the position is the time commitment and the pay," McClendon said. "The pay isn't the most important thing, as I said, but I think it's good, and I commend Sen. Gardenhire on shedding a light on it, and I wish him success in trying to get it passed."

McClendon said that "any time that you can eliminate barriers in getting great people to run for office, it's a win-win for the school system and the county and the state."

In response to a question about how much time school board members invest in the job, McClendon said this past week hasn't been typical as he and colleagues interview candidates to serve as the system's new superintendent.

"This week alone I've had to step away from my job for two full days to do school board duties," McClendon said. "I'm probably pushing 40 hours. And that can fluctuate, anywhere from 5-10 hours a week to 40-50 hours a week. So it's a really wide-range commitment and demand."

The hiring of a superintendent is a lengthy process, McClendon said. Board members also have safety issues that come up, contracts, board meetings, committee meetings and community engagement efforts.

"While we don't don't meet weekly like our counterparts on the [county] commission, we're very engaged, and it's a very time-consuming and demanding position," he said.

During their recent special session in November to push back on COVID-19 mandates, Republican lawmakers passed legislation allowing for school board contests, which are now nonpartisan, to be partisan. In response to criticism, sponsors backed off a provision in the original bill that made it mandatory statewide and the final bill handed the decision over to local parties.

Hamilton County Republicans opted to hold partisan school board elections. A number of members of the local school board objected.

The Republican-led Hamilton County Commission, meanwhile, approved a new redistricting plan that expands the number of commission districts from nine to 11. And they also OK'd expanding the number of school board seats from nine to 11, aligning them with the commission districts, again drawing objections from a number of school board members.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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