Is it time to put our schools back together?

Published 2:10 pm Saturday, February 11, 2017

When Franklin decided to strike out on its own 50-plus years ago, essentially seceding from Southampton County and taking on the status of an independent city, the decision caused division and hard feelings within the community. The bad blood between community leaders, if not that between residents of the now separate localities, lasted for many years. However, much has changed of late with respect to the working relationship between the city and the county. A new spirit of cooperation has emerged, and the two entities have done much in the way of seeking opportunities for partnership where collaboration is mutually beneficial.

Given geographic proximity and a shared history, such partnerships make sense. So much so, that it only makes more sense to continue seeking additional ways for the city and county to work together. As the two continue work on exploring a shared wastewater treatment system, I suggest it may also be time to begin looking seriously at sharing the load on our community’s largest obligation, our public schools.

This is neither an original thought on my part, nor is it a novel concept given that other communities across the commonwealth have successfully merged neighboring school divisions. But it is a conversation that has taken place quietly here for years, and I’m merely suggesting it is an idea whose time for public discussion has come.

Both localities spend a significant chunk of local tax dollars on funding public education. In their respective 2016-2017 budgets, Franklin has set aside $5,119,895 for school funding while Southampton has earmarked $11,946,743. Of the county’s school budget, $2,894,317 goes toward servicing debt, primarily to pay for the construction of its three newest buildings, leaving $9,052,426 for its schools’ operating budgets. In Franklin, which serves 1,000 students, the city is spending $5,119 in local tax dollars per child. In Southampton, which has 2,600 students, the local cost per student is $3,481.

That’s quite a disparity, but not nearly as great as it is when you factor in state and federal funds and the total dollars spent per student. In Franklin, the total amount spent on city schools is $16,385,266, and in Southampton the total is $29,305,475 when excluding debt service. In total, that means the city spends $16,385 per student while the county only spends $11,271.

On the surface, these numbers might indicate that Franklin’s schools do not operate as efficiently as those in Southampton. But a deeper dive may prove that isn’t the case at all, and may make a good basis for exploring the financial, as well as instructional, benefits of the two systems sharing services, or perhaps exploring total consolidation.

Each division has fixed costs associated with operating their school system regardless of the number of students it serves, central office administration and transportation departments being just two examples. A small system like Franklin’s with only three schools doesn’t have as many students to help spread out the per-pupil cost, thereby driving a much higher cost per student. That’s not a matter of efficiency; it’s simply a matter of math.

For both cash-strapped localities, the looming specter of reduced state funding and the decision to continue operating independently leaves few options, increasing taxes to meet the shortfall while driving up local per-student costs or cutting deeper into school budgets being chief among them. Another option exists, however, if the two school systems were to work together.

By reducing overall fixed administrative and operational expenses through the sharing of specific services, taxpayers of both localities could find a reprieve from additional rate hikes needed to fully fund our schools and administrators in each system may not be faced with the dilemma over what programs to cut.

Of course, the primary consideration when exploring the sharing of services or the consolidation of two school systems is whether or not such a decision would be mutually beneficial. The potential benefits are worthy of exploring the possibilities, and there’s no better time to get started than now.

Tony Clark is publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at