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Pay issue shows that Tay Anderson now leads the DPS board

The question of whether school board members should be paid for their often thankless service has no simple answer.

I suppose you could assert that even the paltry wage adopted last Thursday by the Denver Public Schools board ($750 per month, or $150 per day for five days at most) might allow some people of limited means to run for an office they otherwise wouldn’t consider. That’s the argument put forward by school board member Tay Anderson, the driving force behind the resolution to pay incoming and future Denver board members.

Despite his wish to pay his new colleagues being sworn in Nov. 30, however, the timing of this seems odd. Evidence is mounting that many DPS students are struggling on multiple fronts as we slog our way through the protracted pandemic. How does this new budget line item even begin to address that emergency? And in an era of declining enrollment and resulting budgetary challenges, why and how did paying board members become a top priority?

Still, Anderson has said he would like to compensate his new colleagues a good deal more than the $750 monthly stipend. He originally floated a proposal that would have paid board members up to about $35,000 per year.

His fellow board members shot that down, for now, causing Anderson to lament in a Colorado Politics column that “I must compromise,” and promising to push for higher pay in the future.

When the new board is sworn in next week, Anderson, without question, will become the most powerful member of that body, and its ideological leader. A big pay boost for board members could happen soon, before anyone has to worry about reelection. 

Before last week’s vote, the three departing board members criticized the pay proposal, though one of them, Jennifer Bacon, ended up voting in favor of it.

Former Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien, leaving the board after eight years, didn’t mince words about the board pay proposal. She speculated that the $750 per month could be short-lived. “This could very well be the camel’s nose under the tent,” she said. “We’re limiting it to five days now. But a future board could make it seven days or even 20 days of pay. There’s no state limit to how far this can go.”

O’Brien also said that while school boards do need to be “professionalized,” paying board members carries no guarantee of professional behavior. And in that context she apparently singled out Anderson, while never mentioning his name.

“We’ve had multiple examples over the past 18 months in particular, that despite the amount of training we received, it doesn’t take if someone has no desire to be professional,” she said.  “…not everyone wants to abide by what I think most people would agree is professional behavior.”

Bacon, also never mentioning Anderson by name, said “so now the problem is people know what kind of activism that they can expect to see when issues are important to certain people.”

She added that ”we can all show and emote” and issue statements and tweets. “I want to see the same type of energy for these long term community issues,” Bacon said. “We can pass policies, quite frankly (in a) very male (way) by saying ‘do this or else.’ That is kind of problematic.” 

Finally, departing board member and treasurer Angela Cobián, who has often acted as the moral conscience of this board, said paying board members at this moment is financially irresponsible.

“While having this policy seems like a grain of sand in comparison to the billion dollar budget that we have, it is still the case that we are, if you vote yes for this, knowingly increasing the structural debt that the district is taking on,” she said.

A couple of points emerge from last week’s vote to approve board member pay. One is that incumbent board members Carrie Olson, Brad Laurvick, and Scott Baldermann, despite voting to censure him earlier this year, will more often than not follow Anderson’s lead. And lead he will.

Another is that Anderson is building a record of championing adult concerns in DPS, among them this pay issue, staunch support for anything the Denver Classroom Teachers Association deems important, and the formation of a principals union last year.

To be fair, Anderson has also taken the lead on some kid-centered causes, including gender-neutral bathrooms and seeing that menstrual products are placed in school bathrooms. But much of his focus has been on adult issues. Anderson clearly has his sights set on higher office, as a progressive champion.

School boards haven’t typically been a great launchpad for a political career, but Anderson will someday test that. He’s building his resume.