The trick is to stay involved

Published 9:18 pm Thursday, May 4, 2017

Accountability often becomes a victim under Virginia’s layered system of power sharing between School Boards and City Councils. The former are charged with developing budgets for public education, but the latter are responsible for funding those budgets.

When a City Council decides to withhold funds, for whatever reason, the School Board can then claim that being shortchanged caused whatever problems the school system might encounter. And when student achievement or employee morale within the schools is falling, the City Council can throw its collective hands into the air and say it has no power to direct spending to areas that might reasonably be expected to make a difference.

From one perspective, this is a recipe for interminable finger pointing, and the fact is that finger pointing is exactly what happens in many of the commonwealth’s school systems. Seen from a different perspective, however, there is a potential benefit from Virginia’s odd scheme, but the benefit requires voters to be well engaged if it is to become actual, rather than just potential.

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When voters are paying attention to what happens with both the elected School Board and the elected City Council, they can be expected to recognize problems as they arise in either venue. If a School Board is not engaged with its teachers, voters who pay attention will see evidence of that during meetings throughout the year, not just at budget time. If a City Council is consistently holding hostage funds that should be going to education, voters who are watching the process will recognize that problems in the system are persistent and endemic.

The correct response by engaged voters in either of those situations would be to replace the offending elected officials with ones that are more responsive to the needs of the community and its schools.

Too often, though, one or the other of the elected bodies gets a pass because of disengagement by the public during times of the year when budgets and raises are not in play.

If spend-wary taxpayers stayed involved throughout the year — and not just when they’re worried about the possibility of taxes rising — they could help mold school boards that seek greater efficiency in educational spending. And if educational proponents made regular appearances before city councils — and not just when they’re trying to get support for budgets that would raise teachers’ salaries — they would send a message about the need for a strong commitment to educational funding.

Whichever side of the debate you are on, the way to truly make your opinion of the matter count is to continue pressing it long after the budget season is over. And then hold elected officials in both the School Board and the City Council accountable for results.

Virginia’s system of school governance and funding can certainly feel a bit awkward, but it’s really quite elegant when it’s done right, and it can only be done right when the citizens remain involved, whether or not there are headline-grabbing matters at hand.