A bit of political maneuvering

Published 10:10 pm Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Apparently the Suffolk School Board has not yet learned the old adage about gift horses’ mouths. During a discussion about what to do with $1.68 million in so-called “surplus” money given to the schools by the City Council, some School Board members actually had the temerity to question council’s directive that the money be spent on employee bonuses.

School Board member Linda Bouchard wondered how her board would end up looking to its employees if it chose to use the money elsewhere. Members would look like “ogres” for going against the rather public “suggestion,” she said.

If the School Board had chosen to take the more fiscally responsible approach of using the found money to pay other expenses, City Council would have appeared in comparison to be an even bigger group of spendthrifts than it already does. Instead, the School Board’s choice gives members of the City Council a bit of political cover.


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Council’s decision to — for the second year out of three — use a surplus of tax collections for employee bonuses might have been popular with the city employees who will receive those bonuses. But it has been a flop with many of the citizens of Suffolk, who have every right to question the fiscal responsibility of the decision in light of earlier choices to raise taxes and water rates and institute new trash fees, all in the midst of a climate of grinding joblessness and falling standards of living.

If City Council had agreed to give its own employees bonuses while leaving school employees to fend for themselves, the outcry over the decision would have been deafening. By throwing a bone to the school system, however — and especially by announcing publicly that the School Board should use its money for bonuses — council was able to shape the inevitable constituent conversations that would ensue.

“Why didn’t you use that extra money to reduce the new trash fee?” one can imagine a voter asking her council member. “Well, our people work hard,” the response can now come. “And teachers do such important work. We wanted to reward them for it.” To stand up and denounce the bonuses now is to risk being tarred and feathered for being “anti-teacher.”

From the minute that the “extra” tax money was found, it was fated to be spent. This council has proved over and again that there was no chance the money would be returned to taxpayers in the form of smaller tax increases or lower fees for services.

City officials armed themselves with a variety of arguments in support of the decision — there’ve been no raises and Suffolk employees make 9 percent less than others in Hampton Roads, for example. But the announcement that bound the School Board into the process might have been the master political stroke.