Council mounts ‘assault on public education’

Published 9:22 pm Monday, April 16, 2012

In recent years, we have witnessed a frontal assault on public education at both the national and state level, and most recently at the local level by Suffolk City Council’s failure to adequately provide funding for public education.

In fiscal year 2008-2009, the School Board requested funding of $50.1 million; Suffolk City Council appropriated $48 million. In fiscal year 2009-2010, the School Board requested funding of $48 million; Suffolk City Council appropriated $44.5 million. In fiscal year 2010-2011, the School Board requested funding of $44.5 million; Suffolk City Council appropriated $44.5 million. In fiscal year 2011-2012, the School Board requested funding of $45.9 million; Suffolk City Council appropriated $43.6 million. And now most recently, for fiscal year 2012-2013, the School Board requested funding of $50.6 million, and in the budget proposal recommended by the City Manager, the School Board will only receive $46.6 million, resulting in a shortfall of $4 million.

In each fiscal year, when there was a decrease in local funding when compared to what was requested, Suffolk Public Schools had to make certain cuts. In fiscal year 2008-2009, $2.3 million; in fiscal year 2009-2010, $2.6 million; in fiscal year 2010-2011, $7.1 million; in fiscal year 2011-2012, $2.5 million. From 2008 through 2012, Suffolk Public Schools has cut its operating budget by $14.5 million. No further cuts can be made to the existing budget without drastically impacting educational programs.

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Suffolk City Council’s failure to adequately fund public education in Suffolk is extremely disheartening when considering the level of funding made available to public education by our neighboring cities. Suffolk ranks next to last in funding above the required local effort. Most cities in our region fund education at 100 percent more than the required local effort. The city of Suffolk is at only 73.22 percent.

Although the economy has been weak, the wealth of the city of Suffolk has increased. The city of Suffolk is listed as one of the top 100 small cities in America and according to the state composite index, Suffolk’s ability to provide local support for public education has improved over the years.

Consequently, the state’s allocation for public education in the City of Suffolk has decreased since 2008-2009 from $86.4 million to $72.4 million, and during this same time period local funding also decreased from $48 million to $43.6 million.

During fiscal year 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The ARRA provided public schools with federal stimulus money, which avoided drastic cuts at public schools. Suffolk Public Schools received $14 million in federal stimulus funds over three years.

Recognizing federal stimulus funds were a temporary funding measure and could not be relied on for long-term sustainability of the education system, Suffolk Public Schools put in place a strategic plan to best manage utilization of federal stimulus dollars.

In the School Board’s budget for fiscal year 2012-2013, the School Board is not requesting funding from Suffolk City Council to replace federal stimulus funding. Suffolk Public Schools has absorbed any loss in federal stimulus funding through attrition, reduction in force or other funding sources.

The School Board’s request for local funding is predicated on loss in state funding, increased cost for participation in the Virginia Retirement System, and a modest salary increase for school employees.

School employees have not received a pay increase for the past four years, while cost of living has escalated. School employees deserve a pay increase, and the budget request submitted to Suffolk City Council includes a pay increase of 7 percent — 5 percent mandated by the state for retirement contributions and a 2-percent cost-of-living increase for all school employees.

Local funding for public education being proposed by the city manager for fiscal year 2012-2013 will make it virtually impossible for Suffolk Public Schools to provide the level of educational services the citizens of Suffolk deserve and expect and at the same time provide salary increases to school employees.

The city manager would have the School Board decide between pay increases for school employees and reduction in education programs. Such a position is untenable.

In a recent column in the Suffolk News-Herald, Vice Mayor Charles Brown stated his “integrity will not be compromised by allowing any employee of the city to work without being fairly compensated.”

School employees also work for the citizens of Suffolk, and I would hope the vice mayor’s integrity for ensuring adequate compensation would also include school employees.

If Suffolk City Council wishes to give large salary increases to its employees, they are certainly within their right to do so; however, they should not do so at the expense of the children of Suffolk, who are entitled to receive a quality public education. The budget proposal from the city manager has sacrificed the educational needs of children on the altar of greed and self-interest.

The public outcry is not a “bullying tactic” as suggested by Vice Mayor Brown, but is the citizen’s right to voice their views. As elected officials, we are charged to represent those who elected us. The citizens may not always agree with the positions we take, and when this occurs we should not seek to malign what is being said, but to respect differing points of view.

Adequate funding for public education is a moral issue, and the strength of our republic depends on it. We will never be the nation, state or city we can be without a well-informed and educated electorate. May Suffolk City Council understand the urgency of this moment and rise to meet the challenge that awaits us.

In writing to James Madison, on Dec. 20, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

It is my hope Suffolk City Council will allocate the $7 million requested in the budget proposed by the School Board.

Linda W. Bouchard is a School Board member from the Chuckatuck Borough.