Tread carefully with school cuts

Published 10:06 am Saturday, May 22, 2010

Southampton County’s budget shortfall raises a number of significant issues, and I am glad to see that it is generating what to this point has been healthy debate.

As a conservative voter and taxpayer, I agree that we should be searching for every ounce of government waste in our budget, not just as a reaction to our current financial situation but because it is the right thing to do in any financial situation. Raising the real estate and personal property tax rates as a tool to address our budget shortfall should be used as a last resort, one employed only after completing an exhaustive analysis of the operating efficiency of county government.

However, in order to avoid cutting off our nose to spite our face, I feel we should exercise extreme caution when calling for any additional cuts to the school budget.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that we have recently enrolled our oldest child in kindergarten in Southampton County Public Schools for the upcoming school year. My son’s education is obviously of paramount importance to my family and me, but it is not the reason for this column.

My concern is that as we focus on reinventing the economic personality of our community, we need to position ourselves as attractively as possible to those who may be considering Western Tidewater as their new home or place of business. The quality of a community’s public education is inarguably a primary driver in its ability to grow economically. It indicates to potential employers whether there is a quality workforce. It also indicates to young families whether they should choose a community as the place to raise and educate their children.

While recent economic events here at home have caused us to examine every possible opportunity to spend less, now is exactly the time when we should be investing in our schools. We should look for ways to enhance the quality of education we provide our children, which will ultimately make our community more appealing to the firms that could one day employ our children — right here at home. That is economic development.

But we are far less likely to find someone willing to invest in us, if we are largely unwilling to invest in ourselves

That is not to say that if there is waste in the school system it shouldn’t be eliminated. If waste exists, it should be eliminated. And that also doesn’t mean I think we should raise taxes. Our local government and all of the agencies that receive public funding should constantly be under a microscope and closely examined for opportunities to save money. That is just a basic fundamental of conservative financial management.

But while additional funding for our schools certainly provides no guarantee of greater academic success for our children, aggressive and reckless reduction of funding to our schools could have disastrous results for them and for our ability to grow economically.

We live in a region that is poised for growth. Hampton Roads is expanding westward, and Richmond is growing southward. We all know what a wonderful place this is to live and raise a family; that’s why we choose to live here. Sooner or later, people from other areas will catch on to that fact too.

And since growth — and change — are certainly coming, let’s have the courage to invest in our schools and our community now so that we can take advantage of that growth and embrace the change — on our own terms.