Wise report ignored

Published 11:46 am Saturday, March 3, 2012

If one had not read my column (“Sharing services good place to start,” Feb. 19) and had only read the letter to the editor in Friday’s issue (“Southampton should be run like a business”), one could easily conclude I advocated raising taxes to meet the Southampton County Public Schools funding shortfall.

As I read the letter over, I reread my column for fear that I had confused readers. Much to my relief, I found stone-cold evidence of my position on raising taxes to fund public education. I will restate it:

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. 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.

If anyone took from that statement that I feel we should raise taxes this year to fund public education, I’m not sure what else to tell you. In fact, like most everyone who lives in Southampton County, I’m waiting for the day that my taxes go down.

But until that day comes, I’m not willing to compromise the quality of education we provide as a means of balancing the budget. And that means we have to get serious and creative about finding ways to reduce spending in our school system without either eliminating or compromising the educational opportunities we provide.

It is completely en vogue today to shout from the rooftops about cutting spending and being fiscally conservative, yet those who are shouting the loudest are often not offering solutions on how to balance the need for frugality while maintaining a level of educational excellence. In fact, there are solutions to achieve both.

It’s just that the powers-that-be have been unwilling to explore them, even when the facts were placed right under their collective nose and it was recommended that they do so.

Early in 2006, the then fledgling Franklin-Southampton Futures commissioned a study called “Review of Operations, Shared Services and Efficiencies in Franklin City Public Schools and Southampton County Public Schools.” It was prepared by the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The individuals who prepared the report were more than qualified to render an opinion on such things. On May 24, 2006, they presented their findings at the Paul D. Camp Community College Regional Development Workforce Center.

The group in the room included members of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors and School Board, Franklin City Council and School Board, administrators from both schools, as well as public officials and members of Franklin-Southampton Futures.

The information should have been met with rousing enthusiasm and received as a call to action. Instead, one can only assume the copies of this study that belonged to individuals in a position to make a difference were buried in piles on desks, lost on bookshelves or neatly filed in nearby trash receptacles, because to date neither of the two primary recommendations made in the report have been acted on.

What follows are the recommendations:

* We recommend that the two school boards, through a joint study process, commit to examine models for long-term governance for the two school divisions. This review should include, but need not be limited to, consolidation, joint school systems, and service contract models.

* We recommend that the two divisions convene four superintendents’ joint task forces to examine specific opportunities for collaboration in instructional programs and services, human resources, facilities and planning, and finance. Each task force should be comprised of no more than six members, three each appointed by the two division superintendents. Each task force would complete its charge within a specified time period and report its findings jointly to the two school divisions.

The report stated there are cost savings and operational efficiencies to be had if the school systems in Franklin and Southampton County would either share some services or completely consolidate the two districts.

We needed to work together to find the savings; instead we did nothing.

Friday’s letter stated that Southampton needs to be run like a business, and on that point the writer is dead on. In fact, as someone who helps run a business in this community, I can tell you that the sharing of services is not something we preach about to fill newspaper columns. It’s a business model we follow.

As economic times have become more challenging, we found many practical ways to tighten our belts and become more efficient by sharing services with affiliate publications in Suffolk and Ahoskie, N.C., whether it be in graphic design, printing or administrative services.

It’s a model that we know works in business. It’s a model that has been proven to work with school systems in other localities. And it’s an idea that those in authority, either elected or appointed, should be held accountable for studying.

There are solutions that extend beyond the choice between raising taxes and eliminating services, and it’s time for the days of shouting from the rooftops to pick from one or the other to end.

TONY CLARK is general manager of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is tony.clark@tidewaternews.com.