Commentary: Engaging the School Board could enact change
By Ragan Phillips
Dr. Richard Lederer writes, “Real teachers lovingly labor in the most unheralded, labor-intensive, multitasking, exhausting, income-challenged, and rewarding of all professions. Real teachers are inexhaustible and indispensable.”
Monday, Sept. 23, the Hanover County School Board met for about three hours to establish a framework for budget goals for the upcoming school year. This was a first step in a process that will end in about five months when the proposed FY 2014-15 budget is completed. The goals established, followed by the fiscal budget, are now the most important tasks facing the School Board and the public.
School Board member John Axelle more or less summarized budget priorities as a reduction in classroom student to teacher ratios and an improvement in the compensation for employees. This is not to say that all Board members were in agreement with this priority but, as of Sept. 23, those two priorities would have won a majority of Board votes.
Most experts in the field of education would rank class size, along with quality teachers, as the most important factors in a great school system. Axelle may have it exactly right in his stated priorities.
We need to recognize that teachers need time to do more with their students than teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. The good teacher needs to be aware of the background and home life of each of the children in the classroom. Smaller class sizes mean that they will have the time to address other aspects of learning such as helping their students build the character that will serve them well in adult life.
The School Board asked the school administration to advise the Board on the right classroom size. Superintendent Jamelle Wilson and her staff now have an opening to advocate for appropriate class sizes.
But the fear, if one is an education advocate, is that the School Board, and more specifically the Board of Supervisors, will be unwilling to provide the necessary funds to start the process of reducing classroom sizes. As a consequence of budget cuts the school system has lost some 370 employees over the past four years while student enrollment has been essentially unchanged.
In my opinion, appropriate funding for our schools will only occur if we have parent, citizen and business involvement. How do we do this? Public attendance at Board meetings, letters to the editor, even a “March for Education” rally before a School Board or Board of Supervisors meeting would all be good starting points.
During the Sept. 23 meeting David Myers, the school’s astute financial manager, noted that school employees have received a 2.5 percent salary increase over the past four years while inflation was at 7 percent for the same period. A School Board member challenged this by saying the figures didn’t mean much unless compared against the rest of Hanover County’s workforce.
The comparison may or may not be a valid point. But one must consider that over this time period the workforce in the school system has been reduced by 13 percent (the 370 lost employees) while classroom mandates have gone up. Thus, school employees are being asked to substantially increase their workload without compensation. That formula – more work without more pay – may work in the short term but eventually the stress on employees will show in deteriorating performance and attrition.
We all need to think about this: There is a definite correlation between the status of a public education system and the economic “health” of its community. A strong public school system will attract new residents followed soon after by new businesses. Social conflicts and crime will gradually decline as education is improved and the community will have a sense of pride and accomplishment.
On the other hand, a school system that is dysfunctional will lead to a decline in the economic and social well-being of its community. Public education is the most important investment that federal, state, and local governments can make to assure a strong, competitive, and thoughtful society.
Public education is, without question, a social issue. But the politicians and community leaders in Hanover County must come to realize that education is also a vital economic issue.
This is the crisis in the Hanover County Public School system today: How do we assure that Hanover County has a great public school system? How do we put more teachers in the classroom and how do we appropriately compensate our dedicated teachers and employees?
Oct. 8 the School Board will allow public comment on the budget for next year. The issues of public education will not be resolved unless all of these stakeholders speak out and engage the School Board.
About the writer:
Mr. Phillips, a retired business executive, resides in Ashland with his wife. They have three grandsons who are products of the Hanover County public school system. Mr. Phillips can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.