County leaders need to help public education
For school systems in relatively poor, rural areas where resources are scarce and student achievement is low, there’s no magic bullet that will suddenly transform the public education system. No, it’s mostly just roll-up-your-sleeves hard work by teachers and administrators to make sure the job gets done to the best of one’s ability.
However, getting all of a county’s leaders on the same page so they can at least be educated about the needs and challenges facing teachers and students is a good move, and that’s just what is happening right now in Swain County. If this initial overture turns into a real relationship — and a willingness by county leaders to understand its school system — it will only mean good things for Swain students.
Swain superintendent Sam Pattillo says education leaders wants to bring county commissioners into the school system’s budgeting process.
“I feel like we need to be more together in our planning process. The struggle and juggle is going to be between facilities and our programs and the best way to educate our kids,” Pattillo told commissioners at a recent meeting.
School board members and county commissioners actually sat across a table from each other in April, and Pattillo wants to have at least three additional meetings before the school system presents its final budget request to the county. At the first get-together, school officials did not have a bottom line figure of what they wanted from the county. Instead, they filled commissioners in on enrollment increases, per-pupil spending amounts, decreases in state and federal monies, and facility needs.
In many counties across the state, commissioners and school leaders develop a formula for education expenditures that helps the county keep from having huge ups and downs in its education costs and also assures school leaders of what they can expect each year. This scenario makes sense and actually helps both entities get what they need.
However, that formula only works for a while before it needs tweaking. Right now, I would venture to say it’s a good time for our western counties to take a hard look at their education spending and do their best to provide as much money as possible for their local school systems.
Not only has the state eliminated actual dollar amounts it provides to schools, but the current leadership in Raleigh has also done a fantastic job of decimating morale among the rank-and-file teachers. Eliminating tenure; passing a law that asks local systems to come up with 25 percent of teachers to give raises to; eliminating pay raises for those with advanced degrees; and agreeing to use public tax dollars for those who attend private schools are just a few of the actions taken in the last session of the General Assembly. These measures have teachers wondering just what the future holds and whether their long-term commitment to students means anything at all to the state’s leaders.
These actions are also costing the state some potentially fantastic teachers. My daughter is graduating from college in just a few days, along with all her friends who graduated from Tuscola High School in Waynesville in 2010. A couple of those friends — who were among the top-achieving students back during their days in high school and have gone on to do extremely well in college — will be teaching in South Carolina districts. Yep, we’re at the point where starting teachers in South Carolina make almost $2,000 more per year than those here in the Old North State. As a North Carolinian who has long taken pride in living in what I considered the most progressive state in the South, it’s just embarrassing.
Look, the point is that county commissioners at the local level have a real opportunity to throw our public school students a much-needed lifeline. For one, it will score political points for county leaders worrying about the upcoming election. Those who value education will take note of those who support students. And teachers who may be feeling unappreciated might also get a lift.
More importantly, a little extra money in the next few years will go a long way as school leaders continue to try and make do with fewer dollars, more students, and ever-changing education standards. So we applaud the efforts by Swain commissioners and leaders in other western counties who are willing to take the time to understand the needs of public education and consider how much of a commitment they are making to our public school students. Perhaps they will find the money to be a bit more generous in these tough times.