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Sunday, June 9, 2013
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” That is one of my favorite quotes, and nowhere does it apply more precisely than in an urban public school system such as Roanoke city’s. During the 2012-13 school year, Roanoke City Public Schools had a free and reduced lunch rate of 72.56 percent, as many as 543 homeless students and 1,259 English as a second language students who spoke little or no English. Our school system has challenges that go far beyond the basic educational components of reading, writing and ’rithmetic, and every dollar that comes into the system is an investment in our future.
The commonwealth of Virginia does not get it. Our city schools are currently funded almost $6 million below the 2006-07 level, and after incorporating the rate of inflation, that amounts to a 19 percent decrease in funding over the past six years. Our teachers earn less than many of their counterparts in surrounding school systems, and we have been forced to implement unprecedented cuts by closing schools, privatizing transportation, reducing many employee benefits, and, worst of all, eliminating employees.
Inadequate funding, especially our inability to pay teachers even a fraction of what they are worth, has been the most frustrating obstacle of my tenure. It is my biggest piece of “unfinished business” and something that I hope future funding will be able to rectify.
Fortunately, Roanoke does get it. Roanoke City Council has supported city schools by increasing our funding formula and enacting a two-year meals tax earmarked for education. Virginia Western Community College provides dual enrollment classes to our high schoolers at no cost, and they have partnered with the school system to create the Community College Access Program, which provides two years of college education to eligible city graduates absolutely free. The Roanoke Women’s Foundation provided a grant of $100,000 in initial funding for CCAP, and Congregations in Action organizes community volunteers to provide tutoring, mentorship, supplies and food to students across the city.
During my terms on the Roanoke School Board, we have steered the school system through financial insecurity, made tough decisions to protect the future of our students, and never let political considerations sway our votes. We have unwaveringly advocated for our employees, and — our master stroke — we hired Rita Bishop as our superintendent. I am honored to have served with such a remarkable group of selfless and committed board members whose sole focus has been the best interests of all our city’s children. I take enormous pride in how far RCPS has come in our short time together.
During my tenure, the board has voted to lengthen the school day, rearrange school start times, redraw school attendance lines, open Forest Park Academy, and build two new high schools that boast their own stadiums. In the last five years alone, the graduation rate has risen from the 57th percentile to the 80th percentile, the annual number of industry certifications earned from Roanoke Technical Education Center has risen from 79 to 696, the number of Advanced Placement courses offered at the high schools has increased from 15 to 23, the annual number of AP exams administered has increased from 429 to 1,905, and more than 500 students have graduated from Forest Park Academy.
I believe that the future of Roanoke depends upon the success of public education, and I feel strongly that RCPS has proven that all our students are capable of learning, achieving and succeeding. When much is given, much is expected in return, and I have complete confidence that the return on our collective investment in this school system will benefit not only those who have been part of it, but the entire city of Roanoke for generations to come.
I will miss tremendously being part of the system’s continued growth, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to have served. I thank you for your support and faith in me these last eight years. I thank city council for my appointment in 2005, and my fellow school board members for electing me chair each year since 2006. It has been the most rewarding service of my life.
Eight years ago, a chance reading of “The Lorax” convinced me to apply for the Roanoke school board, and I will be forever grateful to Dr. Seuss for this realization: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Please know that I have always cared, a whole awful lot, and I always will.
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