SALEM — Faced with a budget for next year that the mayor has described as the most challenging in recent memory, School Committee members have taken steps to more than double their own pay.
School Committee member Brendan Walsh told the City Council's finance subcommittee last week that a pay increase was long overdue. The committee's current pay of $2,500 a year was set in 1989 and has not been adjusted since then, he said.
Walsh argued that the pay was not adequate given the heavy workload committee members shoulder and the substantial time investment they make. He also said the low wage prevents qualified candidates from seeking the elected office.
The council's Administration and Finance Committee was sympathetic to Walsh's plea and voted to make the School Committee's compensation 6 percent of the mayor's salary. Mayor Kim Driscoll earns $100,000 a year, which means members' pay would jump to $6,000 — an increase of 140 percent.
Walsh understands that the increase might upset some.
"But in this case, you're not talking about a lot of money," he said.
If it were to take effect, it would cost the city an additional $21,000 a year.
Because it involves an ordinance change, the matter must now be addressed by the council's committee on ordinance, licenses and legal affairs before the full council votes on it.
"Obviously, it's a difficult time," said Councilor Robert McCarthy, chairman of the Administration and Finance Committee. "But we thought the cleanest way to do it was to link (the School Committee's pay) to the mayor's salary."
The council's pay is 10 percent of the mayor's salary and is adjusted whenever the mayor receives a raise. The School Committee's pay would similarly increase.
The mayor's salary is up for review this year, and McCarthy's committee voted Tuesday to recommend that the position's pay stay at its current level. It was increased, from $80,000 to $100,000, by a council action in 2007.
The School Committee is now paid in a single, lump-sum check. The disbursements would likely be spread out if a raise is approved.
"Clearly, I think ($6,000) is a much more accurate reflection of the responsibilities of the School Committee and the amount of time we put in as School Committee members," member Janet Crane said.
Besides their twice-monthly meetings, members each sit on three subcommittees and serve on various hiring committees. The district is also in the process of creating its own charter school and crafting state-endorsed curriculum changes at Carlton School. Crane said the work can consume 20 hours a week or more.
"The $2,500 stipend has needed to be changed for a long time," she said. "I commend Brendan."
The increase is needed to bring Salem in line with other cities, she said.
In Peabody, School Committee members receive $4,000 a year. Five Beverly School Committee members receive a $3,600 annual stipend, and the president earns $3,900. School Committee members in both those communities are eligible to receive health insurance from the city. No one on Salem's committee has health insurance through the city, Crane said.
Citing past elections in which only two candidates ran for three open seats, Crane said the pay is a disincentive. "Having a reasonable stipend is important to attracting qualified candidates," she said.
In her State of the City Address in January, Driscoll said "2011 promises to be the most difficult budget cycle we have had to deal with."
Salem will be tested by diminished state and federal aid and decreasing revenues from the power plant.
The city's three-year tax agreement with Dominion, the plant's owner, expires this summer, and Driscoll has said the company is unlikely to want to keep paying what it does now, which is $3 million a year in taxes and a $1.75 million host fee annually.