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An ongoing dialogue between Franklin County’s school board and board of supervisors could make for smarter funding priorities.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Franklin County’s school board made a wise move inviting the county board of supervisors to meet last week for a little sit-down about next year’s schools budget.
Education is key to understanding.
And in Virginia — where school divisions cannot levy taxes, but rather depend on local governments to provide local taxpayers’ share of support — education had best start with city councils and county boards. Those key decision makers have to know the stakes when school officials come to them asking for money.
Especially when, as was the case during Franklin County’s contentious school budget deliberations for this school year, the request would require a local tax increase.
Among the stakes that tax-averse supervisors (and their constituents) need to understand is the impact low-ball budgets will have over time on the county’s work force as income gaps widen between well-educated adults and those with a high school diploma or less. This is a nationwide trend, and Franklin County cannot hope to be immune.
The county has earned a reputation for academic excellence.
Its graduation rate for all students in a four-year grouping meets the state’s 80 percent target. So county residents have reason to be proud of their schools.
But the division’s graduation rate falls short for various subgroups of students: those with disabilities (54 percent), who are economically disadvantaged (73 percent), or have limited English language skills (71 percent).
Students who drop out today more than likely are on their way to becoming the next generation of county residents working but still living in poverty, unable to provide for themselves, much less have and care for families, without help from taxpayers.
Schools Superintendent Mark Church says sometimes students don’t fit well into typical education programs for a variety of reasons: They might work, or have a child or a school phobia. They need to be identified earlier, so schools can develop alternative educational options that give them a chance for a better life.
A supervisor who regards a respectable carryover of funds at the end of a budget year as a “slush fund” needs to learn more about budgeting, but also about real needs the county’s schools have been unable to address while every penny is squeezed in hopes of making some long-deferred capital purchase.
County officials and residents who think the schools have not suffered after more than $1 million in cuts are not seeing the impact on at-risk students in need of the social workers and guidance counselors who become expendable as merely “support staff.” Or students who need a lower student-teacher ratio in the classroom than the state mandates in order to thrive.
School critics also are not seeing the step backward the county has taken with preschool. “Several years ago, we probably met 80 percent of the need,” Church said in a phone interview. “Now the need is greater, but we don’t have the services to meet it.”
Preschool can do more than any other intervention to put at-risk kids on a path to success in school and life. But when public school systems are stripped to bare bones, it goes because it’s not required.
Last week’s joint meeting of supervisors and school board members opened the door to creating a closer working relationship between the two boards. The school board has set up subcommittees on the budget and the division’s six-year plan to begin work early for next year. Chairwoman Sarah Alexander invited supervisors to participate, and supervisors Chairman David Cundiff said appointments would be made by Oct. 15.
Cundiff already had his awakening to the gap in perceptions when he learned the academic value of sports for kids who otherwise are at high risk of dropping out. Perhaps closer communication will replace mistrust with mutual respect, and misunderstanding with a recognition of the boards’ shared interests — so necessary if local government is to serve the community well.
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