Making a point

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

City officials have flunked the school-funding test, says one northern Suffolk businessman.

And John Dodson, owner of several local convenience stores, is putting his opinion out for all to see as they drive on Bridge Road.

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Dodson is spending thousands of dollars on a new billboard towering above the northern Suffolk thoroughfare, which shows the image of a school bus carrying the three city officials that he holds most responsible for not paying teachers salaries competitive with other Hampton Roads localities.

The sign depicts City Councilman E. Dana Dickens III, who was mayor during last year’s budget cycle; Councilman Calvin Jones, a member of the Suffolk School Board for several years; and City Manager R. Steven Herbert, who proposed last year’s city budget, looking out from the bus. The wording tells passersby that those three are to blame for not fully funding the school budget last year.

The city kicked $34.1 million to the school system’s $112.9 operating budget last year.

Initially, Herbert proposed a local contribution of $36 million to the schools. However, after the General Assembly approved a state budget giving the school system an additional $4.3 million, he cut $1.9 million from the local dollars.

The City Council unanimously approved that budget, said Dickens.

Dodson, a former Portsmouth teacher, said he put the sign up so residents will hold city leaders accountable for teacher pay being lower in Suffolk than in surrounding cities.

&uot;The goal is to refocus on salary discrepancies between Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake,&uot; Dodson said. &uot;Our teachers (with 10 years experience) get paid from $8,000 to $13,000 less than their counterparts in those other localities.

&uot;As a consequence, many of the teachers in our schools are lacking experience.&uot;

Dodson is circulating petitions for a &uot;We Pay What They Pay &uot; campaign, in an effort to boost teacher salaries to those offered by the other localities.

Dickens called the sign a personal attack.

&uot;If it’s not personal, where are other five council members?&uot; said Dickens. &uot;The council voted for that budget 7 to 0.&uot;

In fact, Dickens, said, since he got on the council in 1998, the council and school board have worked together to improve the school system. In the mid-1990s, the two boards were at war over funding issues.

The two boards started &uot;working together, communicating more … and doing a lot in cooperative spirit,&uot; Dickens said.

The school system has fully funded several recent school budgets, including giving the schools funding to provide an average 6 percent pay raise this year, he said.

&uot;I believe the city of Suffolk is doing as much as possible for the public school system,&uot; Dickens said.

Jones agreed.

He also pointed out that for the past several years, the locality has increased its annual allocation to the schools. Like Dickens, he believes that both sides have gone great lengths to work together.

&uot;I feel like I have supported the schools and I will continue to support the schools,&uot; said Jones. &uot;We have a good relationship between the school board and city council. We realize that we’ve got challenges and we’re working to address those.&uot;

Jones is also questioning why just three people were spotlighted on the billboard.

&uot;I don’t know why he (Dodson) singled out three people, when the entire council voted,&uot; he said.

Bethanne Bradshaw, spokeswoman for Suffolk Public Schools, said freedom of speech applies in this case; however, it may increase dialogue on a noteworthy subject.

&uot;Individual citizens have the right to their public opinion,&uot; said Bradshaw. &uot;We hope it produces dialogue, whether people disagree or agree. Whatever the method is, the message is that he supports the school system…Maybe it will cause people to investigate and become more informed voters.&uot;

Dennis Craff, spokesman for the city, said city lawmakers have a proven pro-education track record.

Besides adopting an operating budget higher than what the school system originally requested, $111.5 million last spring, the council also created a $1 million school construction fund to address the city’s growing school-aged population.

&uot;The fact of the matter is, he (Dodson) has got his facts wrong,&uot; Craff said.