Where do schools rate as fiscal priority?

Published 10:06 pm Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tight fiscal times reveal much about our priorities.

Responsible families, when squeezed by a job loss, spend less on entertainment, prioritizing food and shelter instead. Smart business owners pare nonessential expenses when revenue shrinks and focus intensely on core activities that serve customers.

Likewise, governments must prioritize. As a follow-up to last week’s column on the crisis of teacher flight from Suffolk Public Schools, this and a future column will analyze:

  • How Suffolk as a city has prioritized education since the collapse of the real estate economy in 2007 began putting a pinch on municipal budgets
  • How Suffolk Public Schools have prioritized classroom instruction during the same period

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The numbers suggest that both the City Council and the School Board share responsibility for teacher salaries that rank at or near the bottom among Hampton Roads school divisions, either causing or hastening, depending on your belief, the rapid loss of teachers to neighboring communities.

In fiscal year 2009, the city’s total general fund was $166 million, of which $48.5 million, or 29.2 percent, went to public schools. The city’s recently adopted fiscal 2015 general fund is 8.6 percent higher than six years ago at $180.2 million, but the portion devoted to schools has slipped to 27.9 percent.

Whether $50.2 million in local tax revenue is enough to provide an excellent education for Suffolk children is debatable. Not debatable is this: Public education is less of a funding priority for city government than it was six years ago. Not significantly less, but less.

If, like me, you believe that recruiting and retaining the best and brightest teachers is a prerequisite to providing a quality learning experience for kids, and if you believe that good schools are fundamental to this city’s future prosperity, then the City Council bears some responsibility for prioritizing its budget accordingly.

If public schools deserved 29 percent of Suffolk tax dollars six years ago, they surely deserve that much or more today, given the worsening crisis in teacher retention.

But the City Council’s allocation of local tax revenue is only part of the solution. Regardless of city funding, the School Board and administration bear the heavy responsibility of making classroom instruction an unequivocal priority within a budget that is, by any definition, substantial.

Have they done so in recent years? A future column will explore.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.