School board members are technically volunteers, but state law allows for them to get a monthly stipend.
The cost of these benefits and salaries paid to part-time school board members in the region run the gamut, with rural trustees receiving no pay while Lodi Unified trustees get $670 per month.The amount is approved by the trustees themselves and varies from district to district.
Base pay for attending all meetings in a month is set by the state and based on the size of the district — $1,500 a month for a district with enrollment of 60,000 and $240 for one with 1,000 to 10,000 students — but many boards opt to pay themselves less and have adjusted the amount in recent years.
Only about half of the state's school districts offered a monthly stipend to board members, according to a 2009 survey by the California School Boards Association. Of those, about 26 percent opted not to take the payments.
In Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, the monthly stipend is $180 per trustee.
John Gordon, serving as board president for the second year, said he spends anywhere from 20 to 60 hours a month on school district-related business. This includes not only the monthly public school board meeting, but interactions with the superintendent several times a week, any study sessions that may be held, visiting campuses and responding to email from both the media and constituents.
"The hours fluctuate depending on the issues affecting the school district," Gordon said, adding that on occasion, he has met parents to discuss their concerns. He was first elected in 2008 and has retained his seat through 2016.
"During my four years, I've spent time writing and visiting state legislators to advocate on behalf of my school district," he said. "Furthermore, I have written op-ed pieces that have appeared in the Sacramento Bee and Lodi News-Sentinel."
To do this, he said, he has used vacation days from his regular job and spent money on books, conferences and lodging for district purposes without seeking reimbursement.
"Serving as an elected official is a round-the-clock position. It's not like my primary job where you are able to leave your work at the office when you clock out. Perhaps I'm an anomaly, but I've never felt that sense of detachment serving as a school board member. My mind is constantly thinking of school district matters," Gordon said.
David Renison, president of the San Joaquin County Taxpayer's Association, doesn't buy it. He is a former member of the county's grand jury and currently serves on the housing commission, where he doesn't receive a stipend.
"I get it. I spend more time on the commission that just the one meeting a month, but it's all about civic duty," he said. "Serving should be for the betterment of the community, not for the betterment of your pocketbook."
'I didn't do it for the money'
Under state law, Lodi Unified School District trustees can receive a base pay figure of $750 per month, but they earn only $670, as the district is among the school boards that have opted to decrease their pay in recent years due to budget cuts.
Others include Galt elementary, which recently voted for a 10-percent pay cut. Elk Grove Unified reduced its pay by 8.85 percent in 2010-11. Their current monthly stipend is $689.
Galt elementary's Wesley Cagle is the only trustee in the area who has opted not to accept a monthly stipend, while others, including Lodi Unified board president Ron Heberle, donate theirs to local schools.
"When I decided to run for the school board, I wanted people to know I didn't do it for the money. I did it to help," Cagle said. "It's a community service. I'm just trying to give back to the community and volunteer."
He admits he sometimes takes days off from his regular day job to review the monthly agenda packet and visit local campuses, but he doesn't feel he needs to be compensated for either.
Neither Galt Joint Union High School District nor school board members in the Arcohe and Oak View school districts receive a monthly stipend. Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton and Linden Unified offer no stipends or benefits.
Angela Da Prato, currently in her first four-year term on the Galt high school district board, has never received a stipend. She also does not subscribe to the district's free health care plan.
"When I signed up for this job, I didn't even know there was compensation," she said. "And when I found out, I just felt, for me, it wasn't the right decision to take the benefits. I don't want to take away from the kids."
In this economy, the trustee doesn't believe health care benefits should be offered, but she said she is in the minority. If the board feels otherwise, Da Prato said there should be a limit to how much each trustee receives.
"We're telling our constituents we need money," she said. "Education is for our kids. I'd rather have money go toward that."
Other paid expenses
Districts also often foot the bill for workshops, although attending them has waned with the sluggish economy. They may also take on other expenses.
Galt elementary trustees do not receive cellphones or a car allowance, but they have either access to district credit card or can be reimbursed for mileage and workshop costs. The same is true for trustees on the San Joaquin County Board of Education.
Trustees for the Arcohe district in Herald are reimbursed for mileage when attending a board-approved event, but Superintendent Jim Shock said a check has not been cut for the last two years.
Some districts also pay for equipment. In Sacramento City Unified, for example, trustees receive free iPads and cellphones, and Elk Grove trustees who opt to attend the annual California School Board Association meeting can have their tuition and other expenses reimbursed.
Lodi Unified trustees each have access to a laptop, but it must remain inside the district office building. The computers are primarily used for school board meetings.
Nearby Elk Grove Unified topped the list of school districts that paid their trustees the most in overall compensation. Four of the six who received the most in Sacramento County hailed from Elk Grove.
The district spent $67,635 in the 2010-11 school year for health insurance benefits for its seven trustees. Add stipends ($689 per month, per trustee) and about $9,000 annually in other expenses such as mileage and conference costs, and the board of the region's largest school district was the county's costliest, at $135,000 for the year.