Important job awaits task force

Published 9:22 pm Tuesday, September 2, 2014

By Steve Stewart

News of accelerating teacher flight and another mixed bag of standardized test scores reminds us anew of the need for urgent attention to public education in Suffolk.

Eleven percent, or 116, of the 1,000-plus teachers in Suffolk Public Schools resigned at the end of last school year. Another 20 teachers retired, pushing the turnover rate to 13 percent. Half of those who resigned had six or more years of experience. These teachers, in the prime of their classroom careers, are the costliest of losses for a school division that sorely needs stability in its instructional programs.

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Throw in 2014 Standards of Learning scores that continue to lag state averages in too many grade levels and subject areas, and it’s clear that a recently appointed City Council-School Board task force can’t convene fast enough.

That body, chaired by City Councilman Mike Duman, regrettably will begin its work during an election season for both the council and the school board. Closely following the election will be another budget-setting season, when school funding annually becomes a political hot potato.

Duman, a successful business owner who is unopposed for re-election, is the ideal choice to lead a task force that has no room for politics if it is to produce a meaningful plan for correcting the serious problems facing Suffolk’s public schools.

A businesslike approach is precisely what’s needed as an alternative to the blame game the two elected bodies have played in recent years.

Both the City Council and the School Board will play important roles. Here are two common-sense reforms that are needed, one by each body:

4School funding should be indexed to growth in Suffolk’s tax base, so that as the city prospers, education automatically receives its share of increased tax dollars. What share of the tax pie to give education should not be a year-to-year decision by the City Council. Annual funding debates are divisive and too susceptible to politics.

4In turn, the School Board must commit, for the foreseeable future, to directing every penny of increased appropriations from the city to classroom instruction.

As detailed in recent commentary in this space, spending on teacher salaries, adjusted for a series of small pay raises totaling 8.5 percent, has declined $8.1 million since 2008 to $50.2 million annually – a net decrease of 69 positions, according to numbers provided by the school division.

During the same six-year window, spending on central office/administrative salaries remained essentially flat when adjusted for across-the-board raises that have been given. When those raises are included, spending on administrators has increased 8.9 percent. The number of central office/administration positions has increased from 28 to 32.

The trend should be the opposite.

The task force undoubtedly will produce other good ideas. Time is of the essence.

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