A fresh start for council, school board

Published 9:40 pm Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Perhaps the most encouraging byproduct of last month’s Suffolk elections is a much-needed reset of City Council/School Board relations.

Friction between the two boards has complicated efforts to address serious challenges facing public education in Suffolk — from uncompetitive teacher pay to overcrowded school buildings.

Both sides had valid points in the debate over whether a) public schools were adequately funded by the City Council and b) school funding was correctly prioritized by the School Board. As analyzed in this space in recent months, both boards bear some responsibility. School appropriations by the City Council have not risen proportionately to growth in the city’s tax base. On the other hand, the School Board has failed to make classroom instruction the fiscal priority it must become to help stem the flight of Suffolk teachers to neighboring school districts.

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The “blame game” between the two boards choked the open dialog that is required to navigate such an impasse. It should be noted that there’s no perfect method of selecting School Board members, and Suffolk’s switch from an appointed School Board to an elected one many years ago was, on balance, the right decision. The City of Norfolk followed suit last month, after a citizen petition drive forced a public referendum and an overwhelming vote for an elected school board. A downside of elected school board members, however, is the inevitable political tug of war that occurs when two government bodies are intrinsically connected but answer separately to voters.

Under Virginia law, school boards do not have taxing authority and can only spend what a City Council or Board of Supervisors appropriates for education. The City Council, on the other hand, is limited in its ability to dictate how education funds are allocated. It’s a recipe for hopeless conflict, with schoolchildren often the losers.

A new City Council/School Board joint commission, which was created before the election but met for the first time in late November, can truly represent a fresh start in council-school relations. The tone at the first meeting was encouraging.

Said Councilman Mike Duman: “Over the last four years since I’ve been on council, the budget process has been rather contentious. We need to realize the money being spent all comes out of one big pot and try to identify savings that could be garnered by the two entities working together truly in the spirit of cooperation toward a common goal.”

And School Board member Linda Bouchard: “We are not here for the school system to say to City Council, ‘You’re not giving us enough money.’ We are here to gather facts and find areas where maybe we could both save money.”

With that approach, the commission is likely to identify common-sense solutions that free up money for where it’s needed most: in the classroom, educating students.

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