On 4/4/2012, the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County held a “Dessert and Conversation Meeting” with Montgomery County School Board. It was an RSVP event and the turn out was good. The following notes are my perceptions and opinions. I am not representing the position of any School Board Member or any group, just me in my little brain, scrambling things around as usual:) In fact, most of this is nothing more than the thoughts I had as various items were discussed. If you want a detailed, factual report…we’ll ya shoulda showed up!
The event was held at Lucie Monroe’s at 1600 Roanoke Street in Christiansburg in their back meeting room. It was the perfect space for this event. Both food and conversation were excellent. Thanks to Lucie Monroe’s for providing such a great environment and wonderful food!
A large part of the conversation was devoted to (what else) taxes and school spending. Issues covered what could be cut if a tax increase was not made by the Board of Supervisors. The answer: Anything. Everything is on the table. Teachers, support staff, salaries, equipment, sports programs, you name it and it’s on the table for being cut.
Of course, the central issue is that mandated programs must come first. So, the first thought that I had was that interscholastic sports such as football, baseball, basketball, etc. are not mandated programs. It could well get to the point that those programs could be lost. When cuts have to be made at the Federal level, some of the financial support for programs is lost. That financial responsibility falls to the state. Then, in a political game of “hot potato”, the flow of financial responsibility goes right down the line to the local level. In areas where there is high employment and the pay scale is high and property values are up, this can have a minimal impact. Where property values are low and income levels are also low, this can be devastating.
There is another feature that comes to play in this situation. Elected officials hoping to get re-elected are hesitant to raise taxes so you end up with years of tax increase being postponed and put off. You end up with “patch jobs” being done on schools rather than fully fixing the problems with buildings. You end up where we are today. If a 1% tax increase been implemented 10 years ago and that 1% be specifically set aside for school maintenance and improvements, we likely would not be looking a a significant increase now. We would not have schools in a state of disrepair. You can only patch something so many times before you ultimately have to do what needs to be done. Waiting 10 or 20 years to fix something completely, often means that the problem has gotten bigger and is going to cost more.
Each year the County does a Capital Improvements Program where various departments submit their request for money to undertake major improvements. The County then prioritizes those requests and distributes what money is available to those requests which rate highest on their priority list. This means that many of the requests from departments such as Schools are not even considered. The vast majority of requests are postponed. Each year this has to be re-done with prioritizes being reassigned. Any issue regarding health and safety will automatically get top billing for the few slots available. This is not a random assignment, State Code mandates that health and safety must come first.
There are those who will say that I “ain’t got no dog in that hunt” because I don’t own property or have children in school. That’s true. However, as a business owner, I can virtually guarantee that an increase in property taxes will have a direct impact on me. However, my “dog in the hunt” is this. One of those children being educated today, might well be the doctor that saves my life 10 years from now. One of those children may be the person to come up with a local business that produces 100 jobs for the County. One of them might find a cure for cancer or diabetes, or solve the problem of air pollution in a way that preserves the environment without putting any undo hardship on businesses.
The even “bigger dog in the hunt” is that someone paid taxes that allowed me to get the education that I did, that each of us did. My great grandparents, grandparents, and parents dealt with tax increases to insure that children got a good education. Sometimes those tax increases hit at times that hurt them financially, but they did it. I did it when I did own property and I’ll tighten my belt to deal with the loss of revenue that is likely to occur with my business if/when taxes are increased. I consider it an investment in my future, the future of Montgomery County, and the future of our Country. Our children and their education are our future.
So raise taxes BUT increase accountability! How? By doing what any citizen can do. Go to the Montgomery County Public Schools website (http://www.mcps.org/home), click on the “About Us” button and look at the information that is available. Look at the budget, capital projects, redistricting, testing, and more. Take some ownership in your schools by attending School Board meetings. Use their sight to access Virginia Dept. of Education Resources that are available such as the “Report Cards” for each of the schools in Montgomery County, or the one that your children attend. SOL scores are also available via link. There is some information (i.e., audits) that are not yet available online, but can be requested via Freedom of Information Act. Go to the Auditor of Public Accounts website and look at the 2011 Comparative Report of Local Government. Page C6 of the spreadsheet will give you information on Education. You can look at Montgomery County and/or compare it to other areas. You can use this to show you where the money was spent AND, the section showing the source of funds for expenditures! That was a real eye opener.
There is a great deal of information about our schools that anyone can find, if they but take the time. Take a close look at the Percent of Average columns as a way of seeing how our expenses compare to those of other areas. Most of all, get out to a School Board meeting, you elected these people, you should take the time to see what you’re getting. Who has done their homework? Who is trying to come up with solutions? Nothing can hurt out schools like apathy on the part of citizens.
Well, that incredible dessert is settling in and demanding some downtime. For those who didn’t make the meeting, you missed great food and great discussion. Thanks again to Lucie Monroe’s!! (Those gluten-free donuts are absolutely wonderful even though I don’t need gluten-free!)
Keep your eyes and ears open for information about the Montgomery County Educational Foundation. There is a lot of new and positive energy being poured into it and we could all reap the benefits from some of the work that they will be doing.