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How to get more candidates for Buffalo School Board? One idea: Pay more

A coalition pushing for a change in the date of the Buffalo School Board races has another idea on how to increase participation in the election: a pay raise.

The Better Together Coalition — a group of clergy, community organizations and business members — believes boosting the $5,000 annual stipend for members of the Board of Education might entice more qualified candidates to run.

So far, thirteen people have announced their candidacy in an important election year when all nine board seats are on the May 7 ballot.

“If we compensate them better, don’t we have a better chance of drawing people who come to it with a commitment and some level of expertise in areas that people might need to serve on the board?” said the Rev. Kinzer Pointer, pastor of Agape Fellowship Baptist Church.

The School Board, meanwhile, has not broached the topic in several years and has not increased the stipend since 1974.

Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold acknowledges that the role and time spent as a board member are devalued, but unlike the coalition, she isn't convinced a pay hike is going to persuade more people to run.

“I don’t think so,” Nevergold said. “I think people who are running are not particularly influenced by the stipend. It hasn’t changed in 40 years — and it’s not likely to change.”

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The coalition is focused on addressing what it considers to be shortcomings in the city school system in effort to increase public involvement.

It has been lobbying to move the Buffalo School Board elections either to June, to coincide with state and federal primaries, or November, during the general election, in hopes of improving the normally dismal turnout at the polls in May.

That issue has gotten some support in Albany, but not enough to change anything in time for this year’s election.

Likewise, a pay hike also will take some work and would require establishing a Citizens Salary Review Commission, which would be appointed by the Common Council president, the mayor and the city comptroller.

“Our initial ask was about changing the date, but at the same time we are also looking at the way we do business,” said Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church.

“To put an amount on it, I’ll leave that up to the experts,” Gillison said, “but I do think it’s something we have to take a look at.”

The group plans to submit a request to the Common Council, but that's not likely to happen until after the ballot is already set for the election, said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, a parent group.

The job of a school board member involves a lot of hours in the schools and in the community and at the board table, but lends itself to people who are either semi-retired or well-off, Radford said.

"In effect, you are paying to be on the school board — it ends up costing you," Radford said. "We want to eliminate that."

School boards across the state are made up of volunteers, except in the cases of larger urban districts, like Buffalo, said David Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

In Syracuse, for example, commissioners on the Board of Education receive a $7,500 annual stipend.

In Rochester, they each receive $27,033 a year; $34,758 for the board president.

Rochester, however, can be used to make a strong counterargument.

The board's high pay in that district has been called into question following a searing state report highlighting the district's failings, unsteady leadership and school board interference.

Last year, the School Board allocated a total of $22,307 for travel and conference expenses and $16,500 for meeting expenses, which pays for the food brought in prior to board meetings three times a month.

The School Board last raised the issue of a pay hike in 2013.

“We sent a letter to the mayor," Nevergold said, "and nothing happened.”

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