School board dickers on a no-brainer

Published 9:09 pm Tuesday, April 14, 2015

By Steve Stewart

The Suffolk School Board, which perpetually lobbies taxpayers and City Council members for more money to pay teachers, does itself no favors in the court of public opinion by continually resisting commonsense cost-cutting that would have zero effect on quality of instruction.

The latest head-scratcher came during Monday’s meeting of the City School Advisory Committee on Collaborative Fiscal Concerns, an unnecessarily cumbersome name for a group with an important purpose: bridging the huge divide between Suffolk’s City Council and School Board.

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The School Board’s delegation reneged on an agreement at the body’s February meeting to recommend that both boards partner with a company that promises to reduce electricity bills for government buildings. The concept is risk-free and win-win: The city gets more energy-efficient infrastructure and, on the off chance that utility savings are less than the debt payment on new equipment, the vendor strokes a check for the difference.

Yet, committee Chairman Judith Brooks-Buck threw the brakes on due diligence Monday night, insisting that the full School Board get a briefing on the concept even before the city and schools begin soliciting no-obligation proposals and estimates of potential savings.

Such resistance to cost-cutting in non-instructional areas is common for the School Board, which missed a huge opportunity a couple of years back to save substantial money by outsourcing janitorial services.

City Council members Mike Duman and Lue Ward were rightfully frustrated by Monday’s turn of events. If the committee can’t agree on something so minor but completely logical, how will it ever find common ground on more substantive fiscal reforms?

Meantime, the School Board is doing its best to whip teachers, parents and other public-school supporters into their annual frenzy for the City Council’s public hearing on a proposed budget for next fiscal year. The School Board is encouraging stakeholders to pack council chambers for tonight’s hearing and demand that the council double what the city manager has proposed for addressing inequities in teacher pay.

Indeed, stopping teacher flight to neighboring school divisions where they can earn more money, is an urgent priority for the city. But the School Board would have a more credible case if it demonstrated just a little willingness to save money on things like brooms, mops and electricity bills. More frugality by the schools, in combination with a more generous appropriation by the City Council, just might be enough to close the pay gap and keep good teachers in Suffolk.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is