Just the wrong impression

Published 8:10 pm Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Things are not off to an auspicious start for the City School Advisory Committee on Collaborative Fiscal Concerns. Even allowing a little grace for what is, perhaps, the worst name in history for a government committee, the task force has little to show for six months worth of meetings.

When the City Council and School Board agreed to field two members apiece to a task force designed to help identify opportunities for saving money and increasing efficiency within both the city and the Suffolk Public Schools system, Suffolk citizens had some reason for optimism.

With the two bodies locked in a seemingly endless game of blame-dodging, the problems plaguing Suffolk Public Schools continued to fester. But the suggestion that both bodies send emissaries to help look for solutions looked as if it had the power to break through the noise.

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Six months into the experiment, some things have changed and some things, unfortunately, have not. Suffolk City Council agreed to fully fund the school system’s budget request for the first time in years, giving school administrators the chance to offer raises that will make the system’s teacher-compensation plan competitive again with its counterparts in Hampton Roads. That’s a big deal for teachers and a large olive branch extended from City Council to the School Board.

But the jury is still out on the School Board’s commitment to change.

School Board member Judith Brooks-Buck, one of the School Board representatives on the task force, has held up a process that eventually could result in substantial risk-free energy savings for the school system.

“Energy performance contracting” is a state program by which companies contract with public entities to do energy-saving upgrades to facilities like schools, jails and city buildings. The company guarantees the energy savings will cover the debt payments on the upgrades. If not, the company writes the public entity a check for the difference.

When the task force discussed hearing more about this program’s potential applications for Suffolk schools, Brooks-Buck bridled at the suggestion that the matter be investigated without prior approval from the School Board, despite the fact that no contracts would have been negotiated or signed by the task force and despite the fact that the assessment’s timeframe of more than a year would have given the School Board ample time to hear about the program without derailing the investigation at the start.

It’s hard to know the long-term effects, but Brooks-Buck’s stalling on the matter has surely cost the system at least two months of potential cost savings, and there’s a reasonable argument that, since the program can take many months to get started, the financial loss should be expected to extend to fiscal years, rather than months.

Either way, Brooks-Buck’s reticence reveals a lack of seriousness about doing what it takes to find savings in the school system’s operations. When that body hears a report Thursday on the energy program, members should thank her for bringing it to their attention and vote to pursue it.

Then members should vote to replace Brooks-Buck on the task force with someone who recognizes that raising roadblocks on such simple issues creates exactly the impression the School Board would like to avoid among taxpayers — that of a body more interested in preserving the status quo than giving Suffolk an effective, efficient public educational system.