HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Could the board for Horry County Schools be getting a raise?
Horry County School Board Chairman Joe Defeo would like to see that happen. He believes the board is crucial to the district's success and the work it does is as important as that of the Horry County Council.
The county's governing body currently pays its members more than the school board.
A WMBF News investigation found that a raise for the school board would mean a bump in pay of more than $5,000 for Defeo, who is already the highest paid school board member in the state of South Carolina.
At last week's school board meeting, Defeo said the body's governance requires it to review its compensation every odd year.
During the meeting, board member David Cox noted the individual members' responsibilities have changed since August 2007, which was the last time the school board got a raise.
"This new format is helping us all to be informed," Cox said at the meeting. "By the same token, it is quite time consuming."
Of the three board members WMBF was able to reach, Cox said he would favor or lean toward favoring a raise. Two others – Chris Hardwick and Ray Winters – said they would not support a bump in compensation. Several board members said they had not completely made up their mind.
As chairman, Defeo would have the tie-breaking vote. It is clear where he stands on the issue.
"The job, although technically not full time, is so time consuming that you couldn't work a regular job and do it," he said.
Defeo added his board should make the same amount as Horry County's council members. That would mean going from $9,600 a year to nearly $16,000.
The chairman noted he makes 20 percent more than the rest of the board.
"It's a question of what we're making now in comparison with other people in the county," Defeo said. "The city council makes almost twice as much as we do, the budget isn't anywhere near, not even close, to what we do."
Defeo was on the board the last time it got a raise. Their compensation doubled from $400 a month to $800.
In the past, he said members showed up at the board meeting and maybe "handled a few phone calls."
"It just doesn't work that way anymore," he said.
Reasons Defeo cited for why the board deserves a raise include meetings for committees the members weren't involved with years ago, phone calls, text messages and driving to events.
Defeo and every other board member does receive $300 a month for travel expenses, which represents $3,600 on top of the set.
That brings board compensation up to $13,200, or in Defeo's case, $17,040.
Greenville County's school board is the only one with higher pay than Horry's. The district also has 75,000 students in 96 schools, compared to 42,000 students in 55 schools in Horry County.
Personally, Defeo makes $1,400 more than Greenville County's school board chairman. So, what sets Horry County apart?
"We have better schools with some of the lowest tax rates in the state," Defeo said.
There are 30 school districts in the state that do not pay their boards at all. WMBF News reached out to every chairman from those districts where contact information could be found.
"We all knew that these positions weren't paid going in, and I personally take pride in serving my community," said Julie Lonon, chairman of Spartanburg School District Seven's board of trustees, via email.
Lonon pointed to many of the same issues Defeo did - committee meetings, phone calls, emails and budget workshops - as things that are in addition to the monthly board meetings.
Diane Dasher, chair of the Fort Mill School District Board of Trustees, said the community is fortunate to have individuals with a "true love for public education" who will serve on the board in a volunteer capacity.
"We have discussed changing to a paid position, but have decided to keep our volunteer status so that those who are elected are there for the right reasons," Dasher said. "We want as much money as possible to go into the classroom."
Phil Ashley, of Anderson School District Two, retired from teaching in the district and said board members there are "not doing it for the money."
He added there are occasionally jokes to double the board salary "from zero to zero."
Shell Dula of Greenwood 50 said board pay has "never come up" and "our board is very service oriented."
"I've talked to other school board members, they show up to a meeting, they take a vote and they go home," Defeo said. "If they don't get any pay, maybe they don't want any pay. Maybe they don't deserve any pay."
Lexington District One Board Chairperson Debbie Knight said via email board members work "untold hours" to make sure the students have the best education possible.
"I serve willingly because I want the students in Lexington One to be all that they can be," Knight said. "It is a small way in which I can serve my community."
Chairman Mack McCarter said no one on the Clover School Board "has ever asked for or wanted any money for serving."
McCarter did point out his district is serving a much smaller area than Horry County School Board members have to cover.
"Our task is to hire the best superintendent that we can, and we've done that," he said.
Lonon said she would not want to have to defend pay or a pay raise to her constituents, "if there are other things that the school district needs."
Defeo said that isn't an issue in Horry County.
"We have $90 million in the bank; $27 million of that is free for us to use as necessary," he said. "We have a lot of other options and a lot of other things we can cut."
Still, the question remained as to what makes the Horry County School Board different from the ones receiving no compensation at all.
"There are school districts where the board doesn't do hardly anything," Defeo said. "The superintendent does everything; everybody else does everything. I can promise you in Horry County that is not the way the government was set up."
Defeo added more people will run for the office if the pay is better, something he said is a good thing.
"Do we want the school board to be an aristocratic position so it's only for those people who have a lot of money or are retired?" he said. "Or, do we want regular, normal people to run for this office? My opinion is regular people should. This job needs to pay; it's a job. I don't care if you call it elected official or not. When you're dealing with people's children, you're dealing with their most precious commodity, and they're very passionate, believe me."
Ultimately, a board member would have to add the raise to the agenda and then it would get a vote.
The Horry County School Board has a budget retreat Feb. 6, ahead of its next regularly scheduled board meeting on Feb. 20.