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More than one school of thought on paying Boston School Committee

Penny-pinching is more often discussed than practiced by Boston's elected officials, who never seem to be at a loss for new ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

The ''easy come-easy go'' attitude of the Boston School Committee should be of concern to all property owners in the city; soon they may be digging deeper into their pockets to provide salaries for the big spenders.

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There's a compelling case to be made for providing nary a dime to the 13 -member panel responsible for setting policies for Boston's shrinking public school system, but fighting for it may well be a lost cause. Even the city's private fiscal watchdog, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, seems resigned to the idea of School Committee compensation.

The timing of such a move could hardly be worse, following the layoffs of several hundred municipal employees. Many more soon may be receiving layoff notices. The research bureau, for example, has recently warned that slimming the city payroll by another 685 workers may be needed to get the current fiscal 1985 budget in balance. And there is little doubt that many of those to be terminated are loyal, hard-working men and women.

In fairness to members of the Boston School Committee, it should be noted that their counterparts in a dozen other communities in the commonwealth - including neighboring Cambridge and Quincy - are compensated for their service. So, too, are a number of other school boards around the nation.

But throughout the United States and in Massachusetts, the vast majority of the elected panels that shape the public education programs and policies provide their services gratis. These include five of America's seven largest cities - Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, and Philadelphia. In each of these cases the school board is smaller, which might mean there's a heavier workload per member.

In most places, such posts are part-time commitments of less than a full day a week, if that. The role of a school board is not to administer the day-to-day operations of a school system. That's the function of a professional superintendent.

There's no reason the situation should be any different in Boston, if, indeed , that is the intent of the 13-member panel elected last November to chart a program of quality elementary and secondary public education for the nation's 20 th largest city.

The state enabling act, which allows Massachusetts communities to pay their school committees, has been on the books for two years. However, those now pushing for compensation made no mention of their zeal for a stipend during last fall's election campaign. But it was not very far into the year before the newly enlarged (from five to 13) School Committee began its move to be paid. Since mid-March, the School Committee has sent letters to the City Council urging provision for School Committee salaries.

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The latest communique, dated July 25, from committee president Rita Walsh-Tomasini on behalf of the members, advised that it was a matter of great urgency.

Two City Council measures aimed at clearing the way for paying the School Committee members something for their services, although perhaps not the $15,000 annually being sought, were scheduled to be aired yesterday before the council's committee on government operations, chaired by Councilor Christopher A. Iannella.

The first of the proposals, filed by Councilor James Kelly last February, calls for amending the city's charter by deleting language specifying the School Committee will be unpaid. That approach would require a special so-called home-rule petition to the state legislature.

A second option - this one involving the simple acceptance of the 1982 enabling act by the council - is embraced in a measure filed in June by Councilor David Scondras.

Either approach needs the assent of Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who so far has not indicated his position. If each of the 13 members receives the requested $15 ,000, it would boost the city payroll by $195,000 a year. The Municipal Research Bureau has endorsed another stipend - $4,800 for each of the School Committee members. Even that would add up to $62,400 a year.

Whatever compensation is set should not come at the expense of the schoolchildren of Boston or their teachers. At the same time, it is unfair to expect that School Committee pay might come through increasing the School Department budget more than a nickel. Where the money might come from is through reductions in the personnel account for the committee members, each of whom now has $43,000 a year for administrative and secretarial aides.

Regardless of whether the 13 committee members get any kind of compensation, there is nothing to suggest they would do a better job. When they were elected, they gave voters the impression they were volunteering their talents. Thus, if there is to be even a tiny compensation for the committee members, it should not come until January 1986 after the next election. That way, those in the running would know in advance whether and how much they would be paid. Such an arrangement would only be fair to people who may have run last time if they knew a stipend would be involved.

Presumably, School Committee candidates knew what sorts of demands the position entailed. Mrs. Tomasini and at least three of her colleagues are veterans to their posts.

Should any of the current School Committee members find the monthly meetings and related demands too great to bear without getting paid, they can always resign and let a successor more committed to the concept of voluntarism take the seat.

Most US cities with paid school-board members have compensation levels lower than what the Boston School Committee is asking. In addition, the council membership is usually smaller. Boston's panel would be the second most highly paid in America, outranked only by the seven members who are appointed (not elected) to the school board in New York City.

A 1983 survey by the National Association of School Boards showed only about half the larger public school systems provide any type of remuneration. For those that do, the stipend or expense allowance is nominal, usually ranging from a few hundred dollars to $3,000 a year. For financially hard-pressed Boston, the idea of paying School Committee members even a token salary seems to make little sense.

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