The Public Eye

Charter school board may get rare perk – pay

Highlands Community Charter School student Ricky Gamble of Sacramento goes through a checklist of things that he will be tested on before he takes a driving test to become a truck driver.
Highlands Community Charter School student Ricky Gamble of Sacramento goes through a checklist of things that he will be tested on before he takes a driving test to become a truck driver. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Charter schools, unlike big school districts, don’t usually pay their board members. But trustees of a single charter school in Del Paso Heights will start receiving $600 a month if a proposal to amend the school’s bylaws gets final approval.

Highlands Community Charter School, approved last year by Twin Rivers Unified, offers students older than 22 an opportunity to earn high school diplomas, learn vocations and improve English skills. The publicly funded school serves 350 students, including many ex-offenders.

Galt Joint Union school district, by comparison, educates about 3,800 K-8 students. Its trustees are paid $180 a month. Twin Rivers Unified trustees are paid $750 a month to serve their 28,000 students. Both districts offer health benefits to board members.

The California Education Code allows school districts to pay their trustees monthly stipends based on enrollment. School boards can elect to take less, or add up to 5 percent to the base amount. These payments often come with medical and dental benefits.

Charter schools are governed by state nonprofit rules and their own bylaws, which offer more latitude.

“I’m not aware of other charter schools that pay stipends,” said Emily Bertelli, spokeswoman for the California Charter School Association. The charter advocacy organization doesn’t recommend stipends, she said.

Leaders of Highlands Community Charter School say the payments are justified because the board members work eight to 16 hours each week. “It (the board) is really active and really runs this place,” said Murdock Smith, who recently stepped down from the school board to become the school’s part-time chief financial officer.

Holding a seat on the charter’s board is demanding because the school has grown rapidly, recently adding four off-site classrooms, said Ward Allen, president of the nonprofit corporation that runs the charter school. The passage of Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for some crimes, has meant more people are being released from prison and are calling the school searching for job training.

“We’re on the verge of being discovered,” Allen said. “We are basically seeing the flood start, and I don’t know how quickly it is going to abate. I think it will be a busy, busy year.”

Locally, neither Fortune Charter Schools, California Montessori Project nor Aspire Public Schools – three of the region’s largest charter school systems – pay stipends to their board members.

“Board stipends are pretty unusual for charters, but they are not unheard of,” said Karl Yoder, chief financial officer for Delta Managed Solutions. His company offers human resources and other support services to 35 California charter schools, including Highlands Community Charter.

Yoder said only three to four of the charter schools he works for offer stipends to trustees. “What we recommend is a stipend that covers the incidental costs of being a board member,” he said.

The proposed Highlands Community Charter School bylaw amendment also would allow for paying the person acting as the Twin Rivers Unified board liaison – currently Linda Fowler – $600 a week for lobbying efforts.

The Highlands board has been weighing the bylaw revision for more than a month. It tentatively voted to adopt the revised bylaws on June 27, pending review from the school’s attorney. The item has been put on the agenda twice since then, but no action was taken at either meeting. The matter continues to be under legal review, said Highlands attorney Thomas Cregger.

The move to pay stipends to the charter board and to pay the Twin Rivers liaison is among the controversial decisions recently made by officials at Highlands Community.

Last month, the FPPC announced it will investigate whether Fowler, who also serves as president of the Twin Rivers Unified school board, violated conflict-of-interest rules by accepting thousands of dollars in consulting fees from Highlands Community Charter, which she helped establish. Fowler is retired from the state Department of Justice, where she was an investigative auditor.

Highlands paid Fowler’s consulting firm $13,000 in October to pursue a federal startup grant before canceling the contract when the school’s principal questioned its propriety.

Every five years, the Twin Rivers Unified school board has the power to decide whether to renew the charter of Highlands Community Charter.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Board stipends

State law sets the base amount a school board member can be paid monthly on district enrollment. School boards can elect to take less, or add up to 5 percent to the base amount. Charter schools are governed by state nonprofit laws and their own bylaws.

Enrollment / Base pay

60,000+ / $1,500

25,000-60,000 / $750

10,000-25,000 / $400

1,000-10,000 / $240

150-1,000 / $120

150 or less / $60

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