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Controversy over school spending outlives leadership changes. Elected county and school officials must learn the same language to share budget goals.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Franklin County’s warring boards are badly in need of an intervention, the sooner the better.
The tax-levying board of supervisors takes an understandably hard-nosed approach to budget requests from the tax-spending school board in a conservative, still mainly rural, county where much of the wealth is tied up in the land.
But Franklin County takes pride in its reputation for high-quality public education, too — and, supervisors should understand, its public schools have achieved this despite a low real estate tax rate that hardly leaves them flush with cash.
Keeping and improving the value of the education they offer is what is at stake in a promised joint meeting of the boards, set initially for this month. Supervisors have decided to postpone until after local elections in November what should be only the first of many joint sessions. They should reconsider, and get started.
The boards have a lot of ground to cover to come to a meeting of the minds on school budget matters, starting with Supervisor Ronnie Thompson’s characterization Tuesday of the division’s carryover funds — money appropriated for schools, but unspent at the end of the fiscal year — as a “slush fund.”
Carryover money typically is a result of conservative budgeting practices, something Franklin County’s supervisors should encourage rather than view as a scam. As County Administrator Rick Huff explained at this week’s board retreat, schools must present supervisors a budget request for local taxpayer support based on many best guesses, such as enrollment-based state aid, the cost of replacement teachers and sales tax revenue estimates.
If the school board were too optimistic in its calculations, the division’s spending would exceed its budget, a far worse problem to have.
The county’s long-term interests will be best served if the two boards work together to provide public school students with the best education it can afford, based on realistic expectations on both sides and an accurate understanding of the issues — not incorrect assumptions.
Huff said the boards could meet jointly with a facilitator trained in building consensus. This is an excellent idea. The boards should consider it seriously.
Franklin County School Board Chairwoman Sarah Alexander told a reporter her board is willing to participate in any joint meeting to improve communications and build trust.
Now would not be too soon. At minimum, voters should learn before this fall’s elections how candidates for contested seats on both boards view budget issues. As Alexander suggested, agreement “that the best economic development is an investment in education” would be in everyone’s best interest.
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