It’s time to look at those school budgets

Published 10:18 am Friday, March 6, 2015

For economic development, having a solid educational system is perhaps the most important key. If you truly care about making an area better for the future, funding the schools isn’t something you can ignore.

Allowing students to get out of school without a proper education is leading to many adults who are not ready for the workforce. Some end up a drain on their parents, or worse, society. You don’t have to just trust the statistics, simply ask any business owner honestly about the quality of the applicants they receive. Then look at the unemployment numbers of Franklin. They are some of the worst in the region, and this region is particularly bad compared to the rest of the state. If you don’t believe those numbers, take some time to drive around and look at all of the young people who are out just standing around. There are more that you won’t see, too, and both of these examples are not even part of the unemployment figures because they have given up on looking for jobs. How are they surviving? Many are resorting to government subsidies or a life of crime.

It’s often easy to say it doesn’t affect us; we push our children harder or pay to send them to different schools and they are doing fine. But that’s not a completely true statement since taxpayers are the ones writing the checks for the subsidies and in reacting to criminals.

So, to put it simply, we can either fund the children of the future on the front end, in school; or we can fund them on the back end. Wouldn’t we rather give them a chance at success, even though some will still fail?

Two of Western Tidewater’s public schools systems, Franklin and Southampton County, are facing shortfalls due to reasons including declining enrollment and increased healthcare costs.

We should absolutely make sure they have everything they need to provide a strong education in the classroom. This is also in no way saying that we should blindly fund everything they ask for.

This is not just a call to the council or board leaders that we taxpayers elect to make sure they can fund the best educational experience possible for students. Superintendents and school board members need to also make sure they are digging deep and putting the resources they already have in the right place.

Teachers certainly deserve the raises that are proposed. But last time we checked, many in the central office are making six figures and driving to work in sports cars and luxury SUVs. Do the raises really need to be across the board?

That’s just one line item of many. On every single item, board members should make sure they understand how this is leading to the mission of better educating students. We’ve been to budget work sessions, and those questions aren’t always asked. In this economy, they have to be because we can’t waste taxpayer money on programs that aren’t 100 percent effective or are not still in the trial period with promising results.

Simply throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution if the resources are going into behaviors that don’t produce results. In 2012, the last time a report was released in Virginia for total funding per pupil, Franklin ranked well above the state average, while Southampton was near it and Isle of Wight County was well below it. Yet, Isle of Wight County schools have been lauded for how well they have performed.

Yes, Franklin and Southampton County can make and have made excuses about the children they are serving. They do have more free- and reduced-lunch students, which gives them more money for those areas, and not necessarily for the classroom. But feeding a child who struggles to get food is part of the educational experience, too. One can’t learn while thinking about a rumbling in the stomach.

It’s whether the school has been set up to educate them, as well as gifted and special education students, once they get into the classroom and are prepared to learn that’s important.

And what we are doing right now isn’t working, so it’s beyond time to question why.

Now, to the council and board of supervisors: Since the system is set up so that these two school boards are not directly accountable to taxpayers, you have to make sure that questions are being asked. You have to also understand that the belt has been tightened as much as it can be without negatively affecting and also putting a laser focus on improving classroom performance.

It’s not adequate to wait until the eleventh hour when the school board brings the budget to you, and it’s time to approve it or bust.

For our friends in Franklin, that’s a little easier of a task. The school board is at least accountable to council members because they appoint them. For our friends in Southampton County, good luck since we can’t figure out exactly who the school board is accountable to. Regardless, approving a strong budget is still your responsibility.

Once you are confident about a budget that will lead to better classroom performance, and you can explain why, then you need to fully fund it. Only then will you have the economic tools to truly bring good business and industry to Western Tidewater.