No need for ‘doomsday’

Published 9:09 pm Thursday, January 21, 2010

It’s a tough time to be a public school administrator. In fact, this time of year is always a hard one for those who are in charge of planning budgets and setting priorities for school districts in Virginia. While they prepare budget requests for local funding from their communities’ governing bodies, they must sit on the sidelines and wonder for weeks on end about the level of funding their divisions will receive from the commonwealth.

It’s a formula for a lot of long, fretful nights through the first couple of months of the year. This year, things will be even harder for public school budget committees, as they go into the process knowing that economic conditions will result in less state funding this year than last year, when school divisions also dealt with state budget cuts.

With those concerns as a backdrop, Suffolk School Superintendent Milton Liverman led a contingent of Virginia school superintendents to Richmond this week to offer a shrill warning about the state of school funding. A proposed state budget that calls for belt-tightening by Virginia’s school districts would force them to adopt “doomsday budgets,” he said during a press conference.

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Liverman admitted that his characterization of the situation was intended to cause alarm. He then called on legislators to help school boards save expenses by suspending efforts to raise various educational standards and to help them conserve revenues by opposing programs that would institute private-school vouchers or tuition tax credits.

The budget concerns of Liverman and his fellow school superintendents are real. But a sober, considered approach to the crisis might be less grating to taxpayers — who are struggling to pay their own bills, much less their government’s — than were the doomsday predictions earlier this week.

Reasonable people, when they look at the bureaucracy of school systems with hundreds of non-educational personnel and dozens of high-level administrators, can be expected to wonder if there isn’t some other way of saving money on education besides cutting out teaching positions, easing educational standards or succumbing to the other doomsday scenarios put forward by the state school superintendents’ association.

Taxpayers and parents — whose interests are not necessarily divergent — will be watching Suffolk’s elected and appointed public school administrators carefully this year to see whether they react to the current crisis with level-headed pragmatism or with strident absurdity. Proclamations of doomsday do not lend themselves to a high degree of confidence at this point in the process.