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Hartford Selectboard, School Board Members Get a Pay Boost

  • Hartford select board member Mike Morris, left, talks with school board member Kevin Christie, right, after the Community Day meeting at Hartford high School in White River Junction, Vt., Saturday, March 4, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford School Board member Lori Dickerson speaks during during the joint town and school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford school board member Peter Merrill listens during the joint town and school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford superintendent Tom DeBalsi listens to the discussion during the joint town and school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford selectboard member Sandy Mariotti listens during the joint town and school meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2017

Hartford —The town’s elected leaders will cost taxpayers an estimated $20,000 more in the next 12 months than they did in the past year — a 50 percent increase — as the result of moves by members of the School Board and Selectboard to increase their own compensation.

During a lightly attended floor meeting in April, votes from members of the Hartford Selectboard made the difference in passing two different motions to increase per-meeting compensation from $50 to $75 for members of both boards.

During a regularly scheduled meeting the following month, the School Board voted to clarify the definition of a compensable meeting to theoretically include meetings that last only five minutes, or meetings that members participate in remotely by telephone.

In each case, the changes were suggested and voted upon during the same meeting, so that the public had no advance notice that the changes would take place. The decision to hold a vote at the April meeting didn’t sit well with School Board member Lori Dickerson.

“The majority of the room are board members,” Dickerson said at the meeting. “To vote, to have to put this before the town and have the majority of the people sitting in this room be board members when we are effectively giving ourselves a raise, I take issue with. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Hartford municipal staffers estimate the change will increase the total amount paid to the Selectboard’s seven members from an estimated $31,200 to $46,800.

The five members of the Hartford School Board received a total of $9,825 for the 12-month period ending on June 30; if the rules clarification does not change the number of meetings for which they are compensated, the per-meeting bump would result in an increase to $14,738.

Hartford resident Mike Scelza, who made successful motions during the April 1 floor meeting to increase the compensation for both Selectboard and School Board members, said recently that he thinks the public officials deserve the money.

“These guys put in a lot of time,” Scelza said. “It’s a thankless job, and to take the time away from their lives and their families, I just figured it was time to show them a little thanks for the work and effort they put in.”

Scelza praised the recent performance of the Selectboard in particular.

“They’re a great board right now, that has really come together and tried to put this town, I don’t want to say back on the map, but in a better light,” he said.

Vote for Pay Raise

When the vote to raise compensation was taken, the town was in the midst of a transitioning away from handling the most significant items of official business through a traditional town meeting — allowing residents to discuss, amend and vote on those articles at a floor meeting — in favor of putting official business before voters at a townwide ballot vote.

Because major town decisions, such as proposed bonds and a municipal budget, were handled by balloting on Town Meeting day, only a handful of residents attended the floor meeting to decide on routine matters of business that generally spark little debate, such as compensation for officers, funding for a handful of nonprofits, and scheduling of property tax collection dates.

When Scelza made the motion, only eight members of the public were present to vote. They were outnumbered by 11 members of the two elected boards, according to School Board minutes.

The minutes show the motion passed 11-7.

From the votes that were visible in the CATV video of the meeting, several members of the Selectboard — Dick Grassi, Dennis Brown, Sandy Mariotti, Rebecca White, Alan Johnson and Mike Morris — voted in favor of the increase.

Several members of the School Board — Michelle Boleski, Nancy Russell, Kevin Christie and Lori Dickerson — voted against the increase. Selectman Simon Dennis was not present, according to meeting minutes, and School Board member Peter Merrill abstained from the vote because, he said, he “didn't think I should be voting (one way or the other) on my own pay.”

During discussion of the motion, Alan Johnson argued that, while he personally planned to donate the increase to charity, the $50 per meeting rate might be a disincentive to people interested in serving the community but could not afford to do so.

“Some folks may need child care to serve, and is this compensation sufficient to even cover the cost of a babysitter for a meeting?” he asked. “I think it’s a bit low myself.”

Dickerson and Christie both argued against the pay increase.

Dickerson said that, in conversations with prospective School Board members, she had formed an opinion that compensation was not a major factor in their decision to run for office or not.

She also questioned the wisdom of approving the proposal at a meeting where members of the public were a minority. She and Christie both thought the matter warranted more discussion.

“It might not be a bad idea … that maybe the town meeting committee would be able to do a little research around the state and possibly engage the community to some degree around the topic,” Christie said. “And that might be a way to at least bring back to the next annual meeting, you know, a mini report as to the thoughts of the voters.”

After School Board member Peter Merrill said the move was likely to draw criticism from the public, Johnson answered his point.

“Regarding criticism, I would be happy to take the criticism in favor of doing the right thing,” he said.

Compensation Outliers

Public officials don’t typically track all of the hours they provide in service to towns and school districts, making it difficult to arrive at an hourly rate for the work they do.

“It can happen anywhere,” said Christie, who is both the School Board chairman and a Democratic state representative from Hartford.

“You go visit a school or talk with a teacher about a school project. You’ll see sometimes in the store, I’ll stop to get a coffee or grab a sandwich and it turns into office hours. Not in a weird way, but when you’re working with the public, you kind of have to go ‘OK, and you need to be available within reason.’ ”

The Vermont School Boards Association keeps no records of how much individual school boards are compensated by their communities, but last year, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns conducted a survey in which 131 towns self-reported compensation rates for town officials.

The survey results show that, even before the increase, Hartford’s Selectboard members were near the top of the scale for municipal officials.

Median compensation, as reckoned by the league, is $1,098 per member, per year.

The average compensation for a member of the Hartford Selectboard under the old payment structure for the first nine months of fiscal year 2017 put them on pace for a $4,414 annual pay rate.

With the increase, which went into effect immediately July 1, the annual rate is expected to increase by 50 percent to an average of $6,621 per member for fiscal year 2018.

In Hanover, town staff said Selectboard members are paid $800 per year, while in Lebanon, officials said City Council members are strictly volunteers, receiving no compensation at all.

Of the 10 self-reporting Vermont towns that pay on a per-meeting basis, the rate ranged from $2.73 per meeting in Rochester to $100 in Montpelier.

Montpelier and one other town — Enosburg Falls Village, which paid $75 — were the only ones that paid as much per meeting as Hartford.

The vast majority of communities pay their officers an annual stipend that ranges from $50, as in Danville, to $8,250 per year in Newport City.

Towns that self-reported in the Upper Valley include Chelsea, which pays $1,500 annually, Corinth, $1,000 annually; Fairlee, $2,650 annually; Hartland, $22 per meeting; Norwich, $500 annually; Pomfret, $1,000 annually; Royalton, $1,000 annually; Sharon, $1,500 annually; Strafford, $450 annually; Thetford, $1,000 annually; Weathersfield, $500 annually; West Windsor, $1,000 annually; Windsor, $1,000 annually; Woodstock Town, $1,000 annually.

Scelza argued that in Hartford, which is the ninth-most populous community in Vermont, the elected officials are more active than officials from other communities.

“I don’t think you would find many boards around the state that put in the time and effort that these members do,” he said.

He also said that it’s important to keep the amount of the increase in perspective.

“When you’re looking at $10,000 on a $15 million budget — I don’t want to say it loosely, but it’s kind of a drop in the bucket.”

The pay among different members of the Selectboard fell within a narrow range, with most members earning within a couple hundred dollars of $3,400 for the nine-month period ending in March 2017. Johnson made the most, with $3,900 — the equivalent of 78 meetings. Mariotti made the least, with $2,100 — equal to 42 meetings.

The Selectboard typically meets once every two weeks, and also has a handful of special meetings and special budget workshops throughout the year. But there are also 24 separate Selectboard-sanctioned committees, each of which meets on its own schedule and has one or two Selectboard representatives.

For example, Johnson sits on the Hartford Community Coalition, the Energy Commission, and the Highspeed Communications/IT Committee. while Mariotti sits on the Hartford Tree Board, the Health Board, the Sister Cities Commission, and serves as the Town Service/Health Officer.

Selectboard Chairman Grassi said during a July interview that he hopes the increase will stimulate more people to run for office.

“I don’t think any board member, school or Selectboard, is there for the money,” he said. “The presentation this time is, you want more and more people running. … I know nobody is sitting on that board for the pay. But is it nice to have? Yes. Especially around Christmastime.”

Meetings Defined

The School Board also typically meets once every two weeks, and designates its members to sit on a variety of other committees and bodies, such as the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality.

School District Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said a payment is triggered every time a School Board member submits a formal notice that he or she has attended a meeting for which compensation is merited.

But during a regularly scheduled meeting in May, the School Board tackled the question of what, exactly, constitutes a compensable meeting.

The issue was raised after DeBalsi asked Merrill to help him clarify the criteria.

At the beginning of the May 24 meeting, Merrill asked that the agenda be modified to include a discussion on that topic, and he had a suggestion for how to define compensable meetings. He said members should be compensated for any meeting at which they represent the board in a manner outlined under its policies and further the board’s mission of “achieving appropriate results for students” and to “avoid unacceptable situations,” according to meeting minutes and CATV video of the meeting.

After Merrill made the suggestion, members discussed what the impact would be. They agreed that the criteria would invite an expansive interpretation of meetings, including training sessions, as long as they were reported back to the board as a whole during its regular meetings.

Dickerson questioned the limits of a meeting.

“There are times when meetings are by phone, conference calls” she said.

“I would argue that physical presence isn’t the issue,” Merrill said. “Participation is the issue.”

The board also rejected setting a minimum threshold for meeting length.

“The expectation is, people will be reasonable, and we as a board will hold each other accountable,” Merrill said. “I’m not going to say a five-minute meeting doesn’t count, because if you spent 90 minutes getting up to Montpelier, perhaps it will. I think we will generally know, as the Supreme Court famously said about pornography, that we will know it when we see it.”

DeBalsi urged members to be discerning, and said the budget for member compensation might need to be increased to accommodate the shift.

“I don’t have a big budget line,” he said. “We don’t have $100,000 budget line for meetings. We have to be cautious.”

The School Board unanimously approved adopting the criteria that Merrill laid out.

Asked why the issue of member compensation had not been included on the publicly warned agenda for the meeting, DeBalsi answered via email that the matter was a sub-topic of a monitoring report that was on the agenda.

“As is our practice, the report itself is identified on the agenda and not all of the particulars that the report will entail,” he said. “Therefore, the two questions I had requested clarification for were not expressly delineated on the agenda, but I assumed would be part of the monitoring report that Mr. Merrill would provide on the board policy pertaining to board committee principles.”

Selectboard members are also compensated for officially representing the main body as a member of a subcommittee, or a liaison to an outside group, said Town Manager Leo Pullar.

“The board is compensated when they attend a meeting as an official delegate of the board,” he said. “For the most part that is limited to attending as a liaison to a formal committee.”

Weekly Pay for Audit Review

Before the increase and new guidelines went into effect, the School Board members, who have fewer committees and fewer members, received less than Selectboard members last year, with an average of $2,100 per member.

At the Lebanon School District, Superintendent Joanne Roberts said board members are paid $1,000 per year, with the chair receiving $2,000 per year.

DeBalsi said he was unsure of how the changes will affect the School District budget.

“I will need to calculate what the new cost will be and amend the budget to make sure funds are available to cover the costs,” he said.

Figures provided by DeBalsi in late June show that, for a one-year period ending in late June, there was a wider range among individual members of that board than the Selectboard.

The figures, which include mileage reimbursements, show that during fiscal year 2017, Russell received $1,150, equivalent to 23 meetings at the $50 per meeting pay rate; Merrill, $1,200; Dickerson, $1,756; a seat that was held at different times by Boleski and her predecessor, Paula Nulty, compensated them a combined $1,956; and Christie received $4,438, equivalent to more than 88 meetings.

During a telephone interview earlier this month, Christie said the primary reason he receives significantly more than other members is because, in an unusual arrangement, he is compensated for a weekly duty during which he reviews the accounts payable manifest for the district. He also reviews the district’s payroll documents once every two weeks, though he submits compensation forms for a single meeting per week, whether he is reviewing just the manifest, or the manifest plus the payroll.

Christie, a former coach and teacher in Hartford, is now a driver for Butler Bus Co., which receives payments from the district under the terms of a busing contract. Christie does not drive for the Hartford School District. He said Superintendent DeBalsi and Finance Director Jim Vezina also review the documents.

Geo Honigford, who is president of the Vermont School Boards Association and a member of the Royalton School Board, said he had not heard of any other situation in which a School Board member is compensated for performing that kind of work.

The new compensation guidelines formally approved by the Hartford School Board are broad enough to allow for the payments, which Christie began receiving years ago under the less-well-defined guidelines, to continue.

Christie said he took on the financial duty four or five years ago as part of a larger effort to address what were, at the times, a series of recommendations from the district’s auditing firm to provide a more rigorous oversight to its financial systems.

“I was asked by our board to do that piece for them because of my background, being that I have been a teacher, a coach, a school principal, and am certified as a superintendent in Vermont,” Christie said. “I kind of brought an extra dimension to that part of the process.”

Christie said the public has had a chance to provide input and oversight on his performance of the duty, and pointed out that, during the School Board’s organizational meeting each March, he has been formally tasked with the job by the School Board.

During the March 22, 2017, organizational meeting, “manifest approval” was included on the list of committee assignments on the meeting agenda, and when the item came up during the meeting, Christie spoke to it.

“If anybody doesn’t mind I’ll continue to do the manifest for us,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Merrill.

“That’s reviewing all of the accounts payable and the paperwork,” Christie said, before moving on to the next topic.

The specific topic of compensation was not mentioned, nor was it mentioned for any of the more traditional committee assignments.

Christie said that, while he doesn’t take sole credit, the impact of having him review the financial documents coupled with other measures has significantly reduced the number of “findings” — red flags or recommendations — received during annual audits.

“If you look at the audit reports for the last four or five years they’ve had no findings,” he said.

Christie said that, in a typical week, he goes to the school district offices and spends anywhere from one to three hours reviewing payroll and manifest. During his review, he might see and question the payment of two invoices to the same company for services provided on the same date, or an unfamiliar payment to an employee.

Often, he said, the questions he raises are answered satisfactorily. Though he sometimes makes multiple visits in weeks in which he has both manifests and payroll to review, he said he only submits one compensation form per week.

“Our district is in pretty good standing with banks and that sort, because our audits are found to be pretty tight,” he said. “That just helps the district overall. ... I’m proud of the work that we’ve done over time.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

CORRECTION AND CLARIFICATION

This year’s compensation increase for members of the Hartford Selectboard and School Board went into effect on July 1. Also, School Board Chairman Kevin Christie is a bus driver for Butler Bus Co. but does not drive for the Hartford School District. An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect date of the compensation increase. In reporting that payments to the company that Christie works for are among the accounts payable that he regularly views as a School Board member, the story was unclear on Christie’s role at Butler.