The Radford City Council approved a historic budget Monday night and raised the real estate tax rate by six cents. It is historic because the council has not raised taxes in 10 years.
Two cents will be used for the city’s operating budget, and the other four cents is designated for school division capital improvements. The division requested about 30 million dollars to complete needed renovations and new construction.
During the April 15 council meeting, Councilwoman Naomi Huntington was applauded by the large crowd when she supported the need for a tax increase, explaining that there was an emergency related to the needs of the schools now. Councilwoman Jessie Foster added that this tax increase is only the first of several that may be needed in the future to meet the renovation and building inadequacies of the division. Vice-Mayor Dick Harshberger stressed that the school division outlined their requirements thoroughly and reiterated that the needs were real.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Radford School Board Member Liz Altieri had an excellent question for the council: What is the five-year plan for school renovations? The four-cent increase was earmarked for the schools in the reserves, but when will the city move to begin renovations? When will bonding take place to pay for school building needs? Indeed, what is the five-year plan?
The school division has outlined their needs and made presentations to the council for many years. Every year, the cost of those renovations has increased, now by millions of dollars. The price will only grow in the future, so time is of the essence.
The city council is committing to renovating the schools, but what is the plan? Why not share exactly how the division’s capital requirements will be funded in the next five years so that school officials and board members can make plans to meet the instructional and safety needs of students and staff? If there is a specific long-term plan, outline it for the division and public. If there is no five-year plan, when will one be created?
Better yet (please sit down before reading on), why not allow school divisions to levy taxes themselves? In 2016, Bill Owings, a professor of educational leadership at Old Dominion University, estimated that up to 90 percent (almost everyone else) of school districts across the country are “independent,” or able to raise their own revenue. Can you imagine? School board members would be elected and responsible/accountable for running the schools and raising taxes to do so. A revolutionary idea, right?
Yes, Delegate Hurst, it would require legislation to make this happen, but why should city councils or county boards of supervisors make decisions for children, parents, teachers, and administrators instead of the school board that is more in sync with their needs? Transfer that portion of the city budget to the schools altogether, and the city council could focus on the needs of, well, the city.
No, this may not pass statewide anytime soon, but why not propose legislation to allow localities to make the decision? More local control is a good thing, isn’t it?
The point is, localities elect school board members to make school decisions. Let them do their job.
By the way, several months ago this column explored the idea of a regional CTE school for the New River Valley. Delegate Chris Head was able to get funds to study the possibilities in the Roanoke area for a similar CTE Governor’s School idea a couple of years ago. Why not here?
Building a centrally located, regional CTE school in Radford to serve Pulaski, Giles, Montgomery and Floyd Counties, as well as Radford City, would help provide all students in the region with Career and Technical Education opportunities that they might not be able to access in their home school divisions. Radford already has plans for an innovative center for teaching and learning that could easily be expanded and made to accommodate more students and programs needed for the region. Plus, state support would save Radford and the region several million dollars. Hey, throw in the recently approved solar energy-building construction procedures that allow schools to be funded by private contractors and eliminate even more cost. Why not explore this legislatively?
In any case, it seems like school board member Altieri has an excellent suggestion for the city council: Share the specific school renovations schedule for the next several fiscal years.
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.