21 Aug 2014
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Controversy over White Boards Illustrates Built-In Conflict

Conflicts between the Board of Supervisors and School Board are inevitable under current system.

Controversy over White Boards Illustrates Built-In Conflict

If the recent kerfuffle over the Loudoun County School Board’s decision to spend $4 million to purchase interactive white boards illustrates anything, it is the inherent conflict that is built into the relationship between the and the School Board.

In short, the Board of Supervisors has the authority to raise revenue, mostly through property taxes, and to decide how much of that money should go toward funding the school system. The School Board, for the most part, decides how to spend whatever money it receives.

Because of this relationship, the School Board essentially has to go hat in hand to the Board of Supervisors every year, asking for sufficient money to fund a school system that has been growing rapidly for more than two decades.

The Board of Supervisors, on the other hand, tends to view the School Board’s request with skepticism. Of course, the school system will ask for more money than it needs, the thinking goes, so that it can still get by after the Board of Supervisors makes the inevitable reductions to its budget.

The School Board has to make sure it doesn’t lose credibility with the Board of Supervisors, or the public, because it wants the next year’s budget request to be taken seriously. For example, it can’t threaten teacher layoffs, elimination of popular classes or programs, or the closing of small schools under a certain funding scenario and then not follow through if its budget is indeed cut to that extent.  Idle, unfulfilled threats might well result in bigger cuts the next time around.

We are left with an annual dance that unfolds over several months each budget season, ending mercifully with the adoption of the budget.  Like the GEICO commercial in which three people try to tango, it usually isn’t pretty.

Two decades ago, when members of the School Board were appointed by the Board of Supervisors, relations between the two boards were smoother.  I remember when momentum was growing to allow for the direct election of School Board members by the public.  Betty Tatum, the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in the early ’90s, warned of the conflicts that would result if the School Board was elected directly but not given taxing authority.  She was right.

The current system isn’t all bad.  One could argue that the conflict between the two boards is just another example of the system of checks and balances on which our form of government was founded.  But the elected School Board’s lack of taxing authority does dilute the accountability that normally goes along with the direct election of public officials.

When I was on the county staff, I would have been happy to see the School Board receive the authority to set a separate tax rate for the school system.  There was a feeling among the county staff that we always came out second best when competing for funding with the school system.

This probably seems ironic to my friends at the school system.  It would be reasonable to assume that the Board of Supervisors would favor the agencies and programs it oversees.  But where funding was
concerned, it usually seemed to us that the school system fared better than we did.

A few years ago, when I was a soccer dad, I used to regularly chat with several school officials at games and practices. When the talk turned to the budget process, I learned that they saw things very differently. What county staff saw as proposed reductions in the School Board’s request, the school officials saw as cuts to their adopted budget.

Regarding the decision to purchase interactive white boards with unspent funds, I trust that the School Board and administrators have decided that this is where the money they have saved can best be used to help the students. This is the job of the School Board and administrators, and they are ultimately accountable for the performance of the schools – which, by the way, is very good.

After all, our economic development folks love to tout Loudoun County’s excellent school system, and rightfully so.  Just last month, three Loudoun County schools made Newsweek’s list of the Top 200
schools in America.  I believe the School Board deserves at least some of the credit for that.

I have a family member who works in a school classroom, and who was initially skeptical about the usefulness of the white boards. She is now completely sold on them. They serve as a combination chalkboard, projection screen, widescreen television, computer monitor for the entire classroom, and a means for students to participate in innovative, interactive educational activities. Essential for a quality education? No, but hardly a “,” as has been charged.

Nor do I blame members of the Board of Supervisors who expressed their preference that the unspent funds be returned to the county, to be used when more funds are needed to meet the schools’ looming VRS obligations. The fiscal responsibility falls on the Board of Supervisors, and this decision doesn’t make the challenge they will face down the road any easier.

So, the dance goes on. And it probably won’t be long before I get to use the word “kerfuffle” again.

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