Caroline, its schools at crossroads

OPINION/By Wendell N. Sims

Caroline County is at a crossroads between ‘rural preservation’ and providing adequate levels of services for county residents, including good public education.

Over the 12 years I served on the Caroline County School Board, I have seen significant levels of progress in every area of service in the county, including public education. Law enforcement, fire and rescue, new library resources, a new courthouse, new county offices, waste management, a visitors center, parks, and soon a new YMCA all required and received additional resources to meet the needs of our citizens.

As I leave the School Board, the school division’s operating budget is still $2.5 million short of the highest level of funding. Fifty positions have been cut the last two years as the school system absorbed its share of reductions due to the recession.  Classrooms are overcrowded. Our 33-year-old high school facilities are in need of significant renovations, including replacing an expired HVAC system, and the eastern side of the county is still two years away from having K-5 classes in one building.

No county department has experienced a higher level of budget reductions than the school system. The progress we have seen has been at the expense of the school system operating budget.

The county has moved forward, significantly increasing debt to support capital improvements. After finally building Lewis and Clark Elementary School in the western part of the county at a cost of $22 million, the county quickly came up with $6 million more to renovate and improve nearby Madison Elementary School and also Bowling Green Primary in the eastern side of the county. After completing the electrical, bathroom, new carpet, lighting and ceiling tile upgrades at Madison and Bowling Green, we provided new heating and air-conditioning units at these schools and Bowling Green Elementary, which is also located in the east.  We also were able to upgrade the doors at the high school, replace the bleachers, and improve the lighting in the gym.

That $6 million went very far, but there is still no K-5 school serving the eastern side of the county. Why is a K-5 school important?  It has been proven that students who leave second grade and attend a new school lose about three to six months of academic achievement compared to those who progress to the next grade in the same school. This is why we made plans to renovate and expand Bowling Green Primary into a K-5 school.

When presented with needs of school building facilities, the Board of Supervisors traditionally has stepped up and met them. They have not left children out in the cold – trailers – for long. (There were at least 20 trailers in Ladysmith before Lewis and Clark was finished.) While the school system’s operating budget has been the focus of some debate in recent years and strained relations between the School Board and Board of Supervisors, the supervisors and chairman Floyd Thomas nevertheless deserve recognition and credit for funding the capital needs of the schools.  Regardless of the timing, they have come through in a big way on many occasions, and I thank them.

Back to the operating budget. Caroline County is ranked 127th out of 136 counties when it comes to appropriating local funds to match state funds for education.  The state pays for two-thirds of our children’s education.  Why the debate over the operating budget and not over the capital budget?  You don’t borrow money to pay for operating expenses, but you do borrow money to pay for capital expenses. With the growth the county has experienced, it was easy to borrow because the increase in tax revenue was enough to pay for the debt payments.  However, to bring teacher salaries in line with our neighbors requires a larger operating budget. If new revenue from growth is used for debt payments, there isn’t much for increasing operating expenses unless you raise taxes.  The latest tax increase was more to raise borrowing limits and make payments, not necessarily for increases in the operating budgets of the county or the school system.

During the debates prior to the last election, I heard many candidates say we have to get more businesses in Caroline County before we can adequately fund the schools. Yet others said that the quality of our schools impacts our ability to attract businesses to Caroline. It sounds like the chicken and the egg scenario to me.

But to be located along the I-95 corridor and recognized as the last link in the chain connecting Richmond with Washington, D.C. from a development standpoint, for Caroline to be 7th from the bottom in local funding for schools does not make sense unless ‘rural preservation’ – which is code for not raising taxes – is the real goal of the county.

The parents on the eastern side of the county figured it out when they requested a ‘safe’ school; that’s code for no learning cottages but a new gym.  They are not asking to break the bank for a new school like Lewis and Clark, but they want a ‘safe’ school. It probably will mean a modest tax increase but not what we are paying for Lewis and Clark.

‘Rural preservation’ means ‘good’ is ‘good enough;’ if the people want more than that, then let them organize and voice their concern, and they will be heard.

Our schools are ‘good.’  They are fully accredited, yet teacher turnover is high, and the majority of teachers have less than 10 years experience. That seems to be ‘good enough.’

We are at a crossroads. One way leads to ‘rural preservation.’ The other way leads to increased county funding for the school system operating budget and strengthening our schools.

If people expect to sit back and let the Board of Supervisors and School Board work things out, they may not be pleased with the outcome. At a recent joint meeting of the two boards, Thomas told the School Board the supervisors plan on level funding for the next school division budget. (No consideration for increased enrolment was mentioned.) He followed that with a list of demands, including line item budgeting and combining certain operations as a starting point for negotiations. Basically, the Board of Supervisors wants information to micromanage the school system, leaving little for the School Board to do except gather the information. Just as the supervisors wanted a menu to choose what they would or would not fund in the Bowling Green K-5 school, they want to do the same thing with the school system operating budget. These are the ground rules they set for cooperation between the boards. Good luck.  I’ll be praying for you all.

If parents want more from their county officials, they will have to speak out at board meetings and call their supervisors and School Board members.  If parents sit back and do nothing, then they have opted for ‘rural preservation’ and a school system that is ‘good enough’ despite high teacher turnover and fluctuating levels of expertise.

(Mr. Sims recently completed 12 years of service as a member of the Caroline County School Board.)

Posted on Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm