School districts stand alone with seven-member boards

School districts stand alone with seven-member boards

In a time of an economic recession and widespread cuts to school
district budgets, staples once considered commonplace are being
reassessed, or at least given a second look. The Gilroy Unified and
Morgan Hill Unified school districts stand alone in Santa Clara
County when it comes to structuring their respective school boards
of trustees and elect seven members, while the other 29 school
districts in the county have boards of five members.
By Brittany Taylor, Special to the Dispatch

In a time of an economic recession and widespread cuts to school district budgets, staples once considered commonplace are being reassessed, or at least given a second look.

The Gilroy Unified and Morgan Hill Unified school districts stand alone in Santa Clara County when it comes to structuring their respective school boards of trustees and elect seven members, while the other 29 school districts in the county have boards of five members.

Two extra members is the status quo, and has been done year after year with no formal call for re-examination, according to current board members. Since there is no public objection to reduce the size of the boards, the districts say they will continue to operate with seven members.

Terry Christensen, San Jose State University political science professor, said districts may choose to keep a larger board to hear a wider variety of opinions and facilitate the “checks-and-balances” aspect of decision-making.

He did say a five-member board would likely make “meetings shorter, and consensus, in general, more likely and easier to reach.”

Jane Howard, a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education and former GUSD trustee, explained the Gilroy board initially elected four “city seats” taken by district residents and three “rule seats” to be filled by members residing outside district lines.

Today, all seven Gilroy elected members must live within Gilroy district limits with the same rules applied to MHUSD.

Morgan Hill’s board size was established in 1966 when the elementary and high school district merged to form Morgan Hill Unified. Six members were needed to represent the six elementary school zones, with a seventh member added to break voting ties.

The South County districts are two of the larger districts in the county with 16 schools in Gilroy and 15 in Morgan Hill.

The two districts enroll between 9,000 and 10,000 students. The largest district in the county is San Jose Unified, which has 43 schools and enrolls more than 30,000 students, but commission a five-member board of trustees.

“We simply haven’t heard a cry from the constituents that they want a change,” said Bart Fisher, current president of the MHUSD board.

During former MHUSD superintendent Alan Nishino’s reign from July 2005 to June 2009, there was a call for reassessment of the board’s size. Nishino wanted to reduce the board to five members, saying that it was too large. Trustee Kathy Sullivan gave Nishino a five-photo frame for Christmas one year during his tenure as a gag gift and inserted her photo into one of the frames. She told Nishino he could choose the other four.

“Obviously he wouldn’t be the one picking the members,” Sullivan said. “But it’s a lighthearted example of what he wanted.”

Nishino retired in 2009 after his four-year stint serving on the board and could not be reached for comment.

While the gift was only a joke, Sullivan said the decision-making by a five-member board is concerning.

“Three people can end up making all the decisions,” she said. “They can choose to vote the same every time and shut out the other two. It’s safer when there are more voices.”

Fisher agreed, saying “I like having extra voices involved in decision-making.”

Fewer board members would save the cash-strapped district some extra money, though the savings would barely make a dent in the district’s $2.9 million shortfall this year. Eliminating two seats would save the district about $5,000 a year in meeting compensation.

MHUSD board members are compensated $240 a month for attending meetings. The amount does not change if more meetings are scheduled, but rather spread over each meeting. For example, if three meetings are attended in one month a board member is paid $80 per meeting. In total, each member is paid about $2,500 a year.

Board members are also eligible to participate in insurance coverage that is available to administrators, at his or her own expense.

Gilroy board members also receive $240 per month.

Staff reporter Lindsay Bryant contributed to this report.

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