Putting the education cards on the table

In what has a emerged as a government budget showdown, the time for bluffing is nearly over. After a public hearing Monday at the Williams High School auditorium — a cavernous post-World War II facility — members of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners will have to put their cards on the table when it comes to the Alamance-Burlington School System budget for 2017-18.  The meeting starts at 7 p.m., the public hearing is item No. 8 on the agenda.

cards tableIn this poker game they can’t check or fold. They can stall for a day or two — after all the budget doesn’t have to be adopted until June 30 — but often the board takes its vote immediately after the hearing. Usually, they have their minds made up before ever sitting down to meet the list of speakers — a list anticipated to be lengthy on Monday if the preliminaries are any indication.

So frequently this public hearing is pretty much a sham. I hope this time the board takes a few days to truly digest everything they will hear at the meeting on all sides of the issue.

Two commissioners are in the toughest spot because where they might vote is far from certain. Board chair Eddie Boswell and Commissioner Amy Galey have been the center of the concentrated effort to raise school funding by several million dollars in hopes of fully funding the initial goals of the ABSS strategic plan adopted a couple of years ago after a series of meetings between school officials, educators and the public. One commissioner, Bob Byrd, is on record as supporting the entire ABSS budget request of $47 million, which would mean a tax increase in the 6–cent per $100 worth of property range.  Gutsy move. The ABSS budget as proposed by County Manager Brian Hagood is $41 million and $500,000 for capital projects. Commissioners Bill Lashley and Tim Sutton will certainly vote against full funding. Lashley, historically, hasn’t supported school spending at all and will probably not agree to a cent over what Hagood has proposed. Sutton might budge a little — but not much. it’s a big might.

So that leaves Boswell and Galey in the crosshairs of not only the growing number of  people who are standing up for education in the community but also the fiscal conservatives here who have long held sway over the political process. A good number are older residents on fixed incomes with legitimate concerns. But a high number are also people with no future stake in education who truly don’t give a rat’s backside if kids here are educated to compete in the world after high school. They also have no interest in the community’s economic future and how it’s damaged by a lack of attention to education.

Ironically, many attended schools here when they were almost new themselves but seem unwilling to make the same sacrifices for future generations their elders were willing to make.

With all sides stating their cases, Boswell and Galey are on the spot. Taking the long view, the county has funding issues that roll way beyond education. I’ve monitored this stuff for years and it’s a fact. While schools represent 30 percent of the county’s proposed $169 million budget, it’s easy to overlook all the other things the county pays for — from the health department and sheriff’s office to mental health and veterans services. I just served on a committee developing a strategic plan for Alamance County Libraries — something I’m going to write more about this week — and next year it will go before the commissioners looking for funds to support some necessary evolution in that foundational county department. Libraries support education in our community, too.

Every single county department could use more money. Every single county employee could use a pay increase. The decision about who gets what and how it’s paid for isn’t as easy as many believe.

But what I can say is that education is the cornerstone of everything else in any community and the decline in Alamance-Burlington Schools over the last three-plus decades has had a visible impact on the kinds of industries that have located here, the types of jobs available for high school and college graduates, the quality of life of all citizens and, yes, property values.

So obviously doing as little as possible to advance education isn’t working.

I’ve written a lot about this in recent weeks, particularly the importance of strategic planning, and so have many others in our area. Today the Times-News, my old newspaper, endorsed the commissioners funding the full amount of the ABSS request. It also published two guest columns in support of education funding and several letters to the Open Forum. If you get the chance, read the two guest columns: Good education is about building a legacy by Tracy Patterson, a parent and educator;  and How everyone in county owns education by Rachel Clark, a teacher and Alamance County resident.

To see other posts on this subject see The debate to advance the ABSS strategic plan — even a little bit — will be a hot one and A pre-emptive strike in the school budget debate. Both have a lot of helpful links to the ABSS strategic plan and a report issued by ABSS Superintendent William Harrison at the request of Galey to produce projected outcomes of the strategic plan if funded. I would also recommend Accepting Elon president’s final challenge to support education. It’s an inspiring charge outgoing Elon University President Leo Lambert gave to the Class of 2017 and their families at commencement in May. See the video here if you wish.

There is a ton of information available for anyone willing to read it. And while I don’t think it’s reasonable or feasible for the commissioners to fund the entire ABSS request, I do think it’s essential they make a good-faith effort — even a better than good-faith effort — to show the county’s dedication to the plan long term. This year’s budget request is really just a part of a process.

The time for bluffing and posturing is over.

 

 

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