In my Opinion: Our schools are our greatest investment

Posted on Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 11:02 am

By Ragan Phillips

Any time we write a check or spend cash we expect to receive something of value in return. In business and banking circles this is referred to as the “return-on-investment.”

Strong businesses and organizations tend to make investments in their core strengths. And, consequently, receive a good return-on-investment.

Hanover County has a number of core strengths that make it an outstanding place to live. County residents enjoy having green space around them, e.g., drive outside any community in the county and you are in farmland. Another strength of Hanover would be the school system throughout the county. School quality is always a very important factor for people who are relocating their families or deciding to open a new business.

An outstanding school system will have an excellent ROI for its community. New residents will be attracted to the area. They will bring new skill sets, new businesses, disposable income, and additional tax revenue. Both new and old businesses will flourish. Property values will increase because people will want to live where there are the best schools…along with the trees and green fields.

In an area with a strong education system, its graduates will know they have opportunities to work because of that education. A great education will provide our graduates opportunity in today’s challenging, rapidly changing, highly technological and very competitive world. The subtle return on our education investment will, over time, correlate with fewer social flaws, such as crime, high unemployment, single-parent homes, lack of civility and other anti-social behavior.

If we, as a society, want to do better in the future a strong, forward-thinking educational system is a must.

In My Opinion…the very best financial investment the residents of Hanover County can make is in the Hanover County school system. I am not suggesting that we just maintain the status quo. We have had a very fine system…but with a sound, continuing investment it could be much better. It could be a great education system.

I believe the School Board, at the behest of the Board of Supervisors, is asking the wrong question of Superintendent Jamelle Wilson and the school financial personnel. The question being put forth is: “How are you going to reduce costs to make up for the lost revenue?” But the right question is: “What do you need to make the Hanover County school system the best in the Commonwealth of Virginia?”

Suppose Dr. Wilson and her staff answered the “right” question and a determination of priority was made as to where any new funding would be used. What would the residents of Hanover say if asked to pay higher taxes, with the additional revenue going 100 percent to the school system? No doubt there would be dissenters. But I believe that a large majority of citizens would see the wisdom of investing in and strengthening our school system.

But the solution will not be easy. We have been “disinvesting” in our Hanover school system for the past 10 years. In 2003 education represented 67 percent of the County’s funding. Over the next 10 years the County’s tax revenue increased by 44 percent. In 2012 education received 47 percent of the County’s funding. During this 10 years student enrollment has declined by only 3 percent while federal and state mandates (primarily paperwork) have meant an increased workload on teachers.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the County has decreased education funding by 25 percent over the past 10 years. Over the past five years the revenues for school funding have decreased by $35 million, a decrease of some 17 percent.

But the impact is not dramatic, not like stepping into the yard and suddenly being faced by a 10-foot King Cobra. Our funding leakage over the past 10 years is more like a very dangerous snake in the grass, one that slithers along unnoticed until it strikes. As residents we may have some occasional worry about the schools in Hanover County but pretty soon our attention is directed elsewhere. There has been no “Patrick Henry moment “to get us up in arms.

Over the past few years we have continued to ask our teachers to do more with less. Support staff has been reduced. Class sizes continue to increase with the projected pupil-to-teacher ratio at 22:1. A teacher simply cannot give everyone in that class the personal attention that is one of the hallmarks of a great education system. And if that teacher has one or two “difficult” students, then all bets are off. Textbooks are dated 2002. Technology resources are limited. The 2013-14 budget calls for $300,000 in technology for a school system using 2003 software.

An aside:  Following Supervisor Peterson’s public meeting over in Mechanicsville on Jan. 15, a gentleman (he proudly proclaimed to be a member of the Committee of Eleven that recommended elimination of the County’s proffer system) told me that teachers in Hanover schools only work 4.5 hours a day. So, by his logic, which I rather heatedly disputed, if we demand our teachers work, say, 8 hours a day then all of our problems will be settled. If you buy that story I also have an East River bridge up in New York City that I can sell to you for a very reasonable price.

Unfortunately the county has, according to the staff report to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 28, 2012, through the elimination of proffers removed $100 million or so from county revenue over the next decade.  Some 40 percent, about $40 million, of this amount would have been directed to the capital improvements of the school system. This deficiency will likely be funded through further reductions in operating costs (read this as the elimination of teachers) resulting in a further and continuing “disinvestment” in our schools.

School funding will continue to be curtailed unless concerned citizens make their case in the public forum. If we are concerned about education we can respond by going to School Board and Supervisor meetings, by writing to officials about your concerns…by being heard!

Or, if you agree teachers only work four and one-half hours a day, if education of our children is unimportant to you, you can rest easy in front of your TV.

I conclude with sage advice from John Wooden: “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”

You decide. It is one of our freedoms.


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