A failure of leadership

Published 10:44 pm Friday, July 15, 2011

To blend a couple of proverbs: If you look a gift horse in the mouth, it might come back to bite you.

Ask the Southampton County School Board, which three years ago rejected a generous offer from Franklin-Southampton Futures to fund a military-style training organization for students at Southampton High School.

The National Defense Cadet Corps chapter would not have cost county taxpayers a dime, thanks to the generosity of the Camp Foundations and other private donors. Futures — an organization created expressly to bridge the ridiculously wide gaps in communication and cooperation between the neighboring localities — offered to fund the NDCC for two years at Southampton High and Franklin High while application was made for a federally sanctioned Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or JROTC, program on both campuses.

The Franklin School Board happily accepted.

The Southampton School Board thumbed its collective nose.

Asked about it by a reporter at the time, Southampton Superintendent Charles Turner issued the following written statement:

“The Southampton County School Board has concluded that in view of the negative economic situation and the severe impending cuts in state revenue, the board is not in a position to pursue the JROTC program or any new program at this time.”

Oh, the irony.

It was precisely because of the difficult fiscal climate and bleak state funding outlook that Southampton should have accepted the offer of free money.

Three years later, Franklin High School, thanks to the city school board’s foresight, has a fully federally funded, award-winning JROTC program that is instilling pride and discipline in its students. The cost to Franklin taxpayers: a tiny fraction of a penny on their federal income taxes.

Southampton High School, thanks to the county school board’s shortsightedness, has … nothing.

The story is emblematic of a deeper, systemic problem in our community: the continuing failure of Franklin and Southampton County — neighboring localities whose economic futures are tightly twined — to cooperate for the well-being of their citizens.

Much fault lies on both sides, but the situation won’t change until public officials are held accountable by taxpayers for colossal failures of leadership such as the county schools’ rejection of the JROTC offer.

Granted, accountability is difficult in the case of a school board whose members serve de facto lifetime appointments and answer neither to voters or elected leadership.

Still, the board must be taken to task. Franklin-Southampton Futures has worked tirelessly to constructively bridge the city-county gap, to no avail. It appears that a sledgehammer approach might be needed to get the attention of those who continue to obstruct progress.

I couldn’t help but think of the JROTC tragedy when reading of Southampton High’s use of sheriff’s deputies to enforce a dress code at last month’s graduation ceremony.

A little JROTC-style pride and discipline at SHS might well have eliminated the need for such extreme measures.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.