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Look for Santa ‘round the corner, in neighborhoods and towns

Christmas celebrations will be different this year due to the pandemic, but even with restrictions in place communities in and around Mecklenburg County are finding new ways to keep the…

Deaths mount, led by nursing home outbreak

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Opinion

Intervention time

SoVaNow.com / February 04, 2010
From the Department of This Can’t Be Right comes the headline: “Virginia legislators might double cuts in effort to balance state budget.” (From the Bristol Herald-Courier, Jan. 31 edition; a hat tip to virginiatomorrow.com — the blog run by former VCU professor and political pundit Bob Holsworth — for bringing the article to the attention of readers east.)

Double the cuts? Depending on what happens to Halifax County’s favorable composite index — the one that already carries an overdue expiration date — our county schools face a state funding reduction somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.4 million to $5 million. That’s under the proposed budget offered by former Gov. Tim Kaine before he departed office. Kaine’s dire recommendations were tempered somewhat by a smattering of tax increases that the legislature and new governor immediately rejected, which is where the “double the cut” part comes in.

A $3.4 million hit alone would be a catastrophe for Halifax County schools. Every year the school board and supervisors bicker over lesser funding shortfalls, so perhaps the public can be forgiven for processing the latest news with a sense of been there-heard that. But $3.4 million in cuts from the state, on top of everything else that’s happening locally, will dramatically impact the quality of education in Halifax. So yes, catastrophe isn’t too strong a word to describe the looming — yet lesser — reduction.

Which begs the question: What word does one use to describe a $5 million cut? How about $7 million or $8 million? Does “apocalypse” spring to mind?

It’s difficult to imagine that even the General Assembly — memorably described by statewide NAACP leader King Salim Khalfani as “that bunch of thugs” in a speech in South Hill two weeks ago — would slice up local school divisions in such a way that would make Freddie Krueger blush. Just taking a $5 million cut as the midpoint in the realm of possibilities, the Halifax school division would be forced to shed a hundred or more jobs in a downsizing that can’t be achieved through attrition alone.

At this rate, elementary students will be able to look forward next year to an early immersion in the college lecture hall experience as they stare at their teacher from the back of the school auditorium. (The pupil-teacher ratios should be interesting, to say the least).

Looking down on this conundrum — or perhaps one should say looking away from it — is Gov. Bob McDonnell, who thus far in his young term has talked about everything but his plans for dealing with the budget. When it comes to paying for state government, McDonnell’s like a magician who can’t seem to find his rabbit.

It’s time for Southside Virginia’s elected leaders to take matters into their own hands — supervisors, school board trustees and legislators alike. Not a soul among them has ever run for office without promising to improve and protect educational opportunities for our youth; time for them to put their money where their mouths are — by tapping their not-inconsiderable sources of cash to get Southside over the worst of the problem.

The bank robber Willie Sutton famously said he knocked over banks because that’s where the money was. The tobacco region of Southside and Southwest Virginia has its own bank of sorts, the Virginia Tobacco Commission, which is sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars despite the best efforts of its members to spend big-time scratch on projects that often deliver iffy returns. Now it’s time to concentrate on the basics, fellas. There’s no point in spinning elaborate strategies for economic development in Southside and Southwest — modeling and simulation centers, anyone? — when a building block as basic as the local school system is about to be ripped out of the foundation.

The Tobacco Commission has long resisted calls to provide operating funds for K-12 education, but the commission could agree to step into the breach for a limited period — two years, say — on the condition that school divisions work towards specified objectives in anticipation of the day when the recession is no longer hanging over everyone’s heads. This is a great opportunity for the Tobacco Commission to set the standard for educational attainment in the region; it should turn this crisis to its advantage.

The Commission could and should demand that schools promote vocation-ed programs with proven value to local employers. It should require school divisions to step up their participation in Advanced Placement and dual enrollment programs (indeed, the Tobacco Commission provides a large share of the funding for the statewide Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies’ AP initiative). Three would be the biggie: after setting a ceiling on the amount of cash it could shell out in any single year, the Commission should require a 1-to-1 matching contribution from local government jurisdictions. And where would your average board of supervisors come up with that sort of money to funnel into the schools?

Good question. The answer: from county and city reserve funds. Many localities are sitting on millions of dollars to use for capital projects such as schools or jails or building repairs. Clearly local governments should not be allowed to spend down their surpluses too far; no one wants to see Southside Virginia become a miniature version of California. But with the region facing the prospect of long-term social damage with the evisceration of its public schools, one might rightly ask the question: If we don’t use the money now, when will we use it?

Tobacco Commission challenge grants for Southside and Southwest public schools would do more to save jobs than three-quarters of the exotic initiatives that the Commission has cooked up in the past decade have done to create new ones. A saved teaching position, aside from being an inherent good on its own terms, also means no payout of unemployment benefits, no disruption to the local economy, no deferral on the promise of education in a region where a college degree all too often is a distant dream. Simply put, protecting the schools from a precipitous crash should be the highest priority of local governments and legislators who have the power to keep it from happening.

Maybe the dire expectations won’t come to pass, and maybe there will be no need to break the glass around the red button. Maybe. But if the Tobacco Commission and local boards aren’t talking about contingency plans to confront the state budget crisis and its likely impact on Southside and Southwest schools, they should be. It’s one thing to be blindsided by a problem that came out of nowhere; to sit by idly and do nothing when you know trouble is coming down the pike and you can do something about it is inexcusable. The ball is in the Commission’s court. Now we’ll see if its membership has what it takes to play.



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