Funding for Our Schools

There is one stark reality that we can’t ignore: our schools are underfunded, and the problem is getting worse.  As the chart below demonstrates, our per-pupil expenditures are well below both the state and regional averages.

Extended-Per-Pupil-FY-2012-13

Make no mistake – in our increasingly global economy, our children will be competing, in college and in the workforce, with children who are currently being educated in Northern Virginia, but also across the country and around the world.

The good news is that funding isn’t everything.  Our County’s relatively low cost of living, and our District’s aptitude for doing more with less will allow us to compete without trying to match the spending levels of far wealthier jurisdictions. But we need to recognize certain realities:

  • State and federal mandates on local education have proliferated, and however we feel about those mandates, we have to comply with them, and that compliance has a cost.
  • While classroom technology changes little between the 1950’s and the 1990’s – books and blackboards dominated both – competitive education today requires computers, tablets, software, and other technology which other school districts have in abundance, and our schools lack.
  • Our schools are dealing with an increasingly diverse student population, including many students from families where English is not a first language, and dealing with this requires resources.
  • With respect to the physical capacity of our schools, in a sort of superficial parsimony wherein efforts to address difficult issues have been deferred in ways that will only make their ultimate resolution more expensive.  (In fairness to the people who made those decisions, they were often in deference to political realities; however it is those political realities that PASS is seeking to change.)

Why Can’t Our Schools Just Use Their Existing Resources More Efficiently?
Of course, we believe that our schools should maximize the efficiency with which they spend their resources, which are ultimately our resources.  We believe the mere fact that our schools are still producing graduates who are reasonably academically competitive is a testament to the schools’ commitment to do so.  It is difficult to argue that our schools are being profligate, given that, on a per-pupil basis, they have far less money than nearly every other district to be profligate with.  We have observed the schools and their budget process very carefully, and we would testify to their commitment to efficient use of resources.  However, if anyone has reasonable and constructive suggestions as to how they might achieve greater efficiency without compromising quality, we would welcome them.

Are Our County’s Teachers and Administrators Over-Paid?
It is unfair to characterize teachers or administrators as commodities – they are each unique with varying talents, passions and commitments.  However, like most of us, they rely on their monthly paychecks, and better teachers are inevitably drawn toward better pay. Last year, the District took an important step toward closing the gap between the salaries of Shenandoah County teachers and those in surrounding counties. Nonetheless, the gap remains.

2014-15-Benchmarks

It would follow logically that, over time, the best teachers and administrators would migrate away from our schools and toward others that pay better.  They might begin their careers with our schools, where lower pay might result in less competition, and make it easier for them to get a job.  But over time, the teachers that prove themselves effective would be recruited to better-paying districts.

The reality is that teachers and administrators aren’t commodities.  We have witnessed first-hand the commitment of very good teachers who stay in our schools when they could make more money somewhere else.  However, this situation is not indefinitely sustainable.  In one of the more inane comments ever made on the topic, one Shenandoah County official described paying competitive salaries to teachers as “keeping up with the Joneses.”  If we are going to traffic in cliché’s, a far more adroit one, in education as in life, is this: “You get what you pay for.”

How Much Funding is Enough?
In their considerations of the budget for school year 2014-2015, we believe that the Superintendent and the School Board devised a plan that met the immediate needs of the school system.  It was not designed to help the Shenandoah County Schools catch up with better-resourced school districts; rather, it was designed to prevent the loss of any more ground.  Unfortunately, that budget was largely gutted by the Board of Supervisors (despite some much appreciated efforts by certain Supervisors to advance it).  It was that debacle that first made us recognize the need for PASS.

We believe that, at a minimum, our schools need increased funding to catch up with the baseline proposed in the 2014-2015 budget approved by the School Board.  Once that has been done, we can begin to assess other needs, most notably extreme lack of space on certain campuses.

Tax-TableTaxes in Shenandoah County
In Shenandoah County, our schools receive funding from three sources: from the State of Virginia; from the U.S. Federal Government and from Shenandoah County Property Taxes.  Two of the three are beyond our control.  The relevant source of resources for education in our County is Real Estate Taxes. As you can see from the chart below, taxes in Shenandoah County are among the lowest in our region.

Does Strengthening Public Schools Require Higher Taxes?
It is theoretically possible that our schools could receive the funding they need without raising personal property taxes. However, consider the following:

  • Shenandoah County already has a very high business tax rate – 10%.  Increases in business taxes would threaten the competiveness of our County as a business destination, to the point where increases in business taxes are almost a political non-starter.  In any case, no conceivable increase in business taxes would, by itself, yield the amount of revenue our schools need.
  • It is theoretically possible that our schools could receive additional funding from cuts in other County programs.  However, public education is by far the largest item in our County’s budget, and public safety – police, fire and rescue and prisons, among others – is the second largest category of spending.  Other programs, like Parks and Recreation, and Economic Development, while popular, are far smaller pots of money.  We do not see how the schools could be adequately funded without deep cuts in other popular and needed programs.
  • At some point, cuts in those programs become counterproductive.  People don’t want to live where they don’t feel safe.   Businesses don’t locate in communities that don’t have public services.  We would worry that a plan that funds education solely through cuts in other programs would be penny-wise and pound-foolish, in that they might thwart the local economic growth that is the long-term solution to our budget problems.
  • While we will not categorically dismiss the possibility of a proposal to fund our schools solely through cuts in other programs, we have a strong skepticism, rooted in fiscal, political and economic reality.

 

Why Should Retirees and People Without Children in the Schools Pay Taxes for the Schools?

Public education is a reflection of a whole community’s commitment to its children – and ultimately its future.  Parents have an important role to play in the education of their children; they need to prepare them in their pre-school years; they need to ensure that they show for school ready to learn, and they need to take an active interest in their homework and their academic progress.  But the responsibility for paying for public education is, as the term implies, a public responsibility that falls on all of us.

Most people in Shenandoah County attended public schools that were paid for with someone else’s tax dollars.  Many retirees and others had their children educated with public dollars in Shenandoah County schools, and some even did so in other jurisdictions in which their neighbors paid far higher tax rates than ours for the purpose of educating their children.  But even for those who home-school their children or send them to private schools, our commitment to public education is not a function of our commitment to our particular children, but rather, our commitment to our community.