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Editorial: Charleston School Board should reverse surprise pay raise

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The Charleston County School Board voted during Monday's Zoom meeting to raise board members' pay from $600 a year to $9,600 a year.

After the Charleston County School Board backed away from a botched 2017 attempt to raise its own salary, retroactively, without much public notice or any legal authority, the S.C. Legislature passed a special law that allowed the board to raise its pay, prospectively, from what is essentially $50 a month to $800 a month.

That was more than two years ago. In the intervening two years, school board members continued to draw their $25-per-meeting stipend. And filing opened for this year’s school board elections. And filing closed. And board members found out who had opposition and who didn’t.

Then last week, 27 months after the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the salary law, with voting underway for an election in less than three weeks and just as some politicians were denouncing a new political ad criticizing that 2017 effort, an item appeared at the very bottom of this past Monday’s school board agenda titled “Act 273 – School Board Compensation.”

And on Monday evening, 82 minutes into an 85-minute regular meeting, the school board took three minutes to debate and give tentative approval to the raises by a vote of 4-2. Less than a half hour later, 14 minutes into a 16-minute special called meeting, the board debated the raises and, by that same vote, gave them final approval. (Notably absent were the snarky comments viewers usually make on school board Zoom meetings, which suggests few people were watching.)

We don’t disagree that people deserve to make more than $600 a year to serve on the board that sets policy for the state's second-largest school district. We don’t even know that $9,600 a year is unreasonable; it’s less than board members in some smaller districts make. And we understand the desire to get this approved before the election, since otherwise it couldn’t take effect until after the 2022 election.

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But the board had more than two years to take up this issue in advance of next month’s election. And giving yourself a raise under the current economic circumstances is unseemly at best, and doing so in such a secretive way makes it even more unseemly.

Board members said they needed to raise the salary to attract qualified candidates to serve on the board — which would have been a more convincing argument if they had acted before filing opened, much less closed, for this year’s election.

Having somehow overlooked that timeline, the board should rescind the vote, forgo the raises for two more years and take up the salary question — with a well-advertised public hearing one week and a vote a week or two later — with enough time in advance of the 2022 school board elections to influence the decisions of would-be candidates.

That is, after all, the purpose. Isn’t it?

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