Sharing services good place to start

Published 10:40 am Saturday, February 18, 2012

There’s a big difference between making do with less and going without.

Sure, it may seem they are one and the same. But if you’re unclear about the difference, start by asking a public school teacher what it means to make do with less. More specifically, ask a teacher in Southampton County Public Schools.

Southampton County teachers begin their career by earning the second lowest salary in the region, only slightly ahead of first-year teachers in the City of Franklin. However, once they reach the five-, 10- and 20-year marks, Southampton County teachers are alone at the bottom of the pay scale. Southampton County schools also make do with less funding per student on average than other school systems, spending more than $600 per year less than the statewide average based on figures compiled at the end of the 2009-10 school year.

Doing more with less is something that Southampton County schoolteachers are accustomed to, and quite frankly, they continually manage to get some pretty good results in spite of that fact. Southampton High School, for example, has achieved full accreditation based on Standards of Learning test results for 10 straight years, has had student attendance above 95 percent for six straight years, and has a student dropout rate that is lower than the statewide average.

County students at all levels routinely compete and excel in statewide and national academic contests, as evidenced by the results of the recent WordMasters Challenge. The national competition had more than 220,000 participants, including 35,000 fourth-grade students. Out of only the 62 fourth-graders nationally who achieved a perfect score, three are enrolled at Nottoway Elementary School. Nottoway Elementary was one of only a handful of schools in the country to have three students with perfect scores. And only two years ago, a Southampton Middle School student advanced all the way to the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. These are just a few examples of the outstanding results being achieved by students and teachers in Southampton County Public Schools, who are routinely asked to do more with less. To this point, they’ve been successful in doing so.

There comes a time, however, when being asked to do more with even less than before really means you are being asked to go without. The reality that we may be unable to fully fund our public schools locally because of the current economic condition of Southampton County is further exacerbated by the fact that we are likely facing reduced federal and state funding of public education. And additional unfunded mandates being handed down to local school systems by the state in the form of greater requirements for local funding of teachers’ state pensions have put our schools in a precarious position.

Our teachers and administrators have done a fairly masterful job to this point of getting by with comparatively little, but if asked to do with even less next year, what might they have to choose to go without? Several members of the Board of Supervisors have already pledged they will not raise property taxes next year, even if it means our schools go without. But the question remains: Where do we begin to make further cuts? Fewer teachers would mean an immediate reduction in the quality of instruction being delivered to our children. Reducing the number of bus drivers would create a logistical nightmare for rounding up students for school each day in a county that covers more than 600 square miles. Further eliminating extracurricular activities would further diminish the overall quality of education our children are now receiving. None of these solutions are desirable but, based on our current path, may become an inevitable reality.

The quality of our public schools has a much greater impact on the community than just the level of education they provide our children. It directly impacts the quality of the labor force we are producing. It impacts the decision families will make in determining if they wish to continue making Southampton County their home. It impacts a company’s decision on whether to relocate to the area and provide meaningful employment. This is the difference between making do with less and being asked to go without.

I do not advocate for the position that we should simply raise taxes to bridge what funding gaps we may be faced with. Personally, my property taxes are about as high as I’d like them to be, thank you very much. But I am an advocate of our elected officials’ exploring options that extend beyond simply choosing between the decision of whether to raise taxes or to cut funding to the schools.

Every stone should be overturned, and no idea should go unexamined. The sharing of services with the City of Franklin, while maybe not the perfect solution, would at least be a good place to start.

TONY CLARK is the general manager and advertising director at The Tidewater News. He can be reached at