The following is Commentary that appeared in today's Roanoke Times:
Roanoke City Public Schools are a reflection on our city and a fair measure of our priorities. I consider the perceived lack of quality in our schools to be one of the greatest hindrances to economic development in the city. I use the word "perceived" because I am convinced that we have good schools and teachers and they are getting better. Progress is being made to improve the quality of Roanoke's schools (Community College Access Program, New Honors Program in middle schools, and many others), but we can't ignore that our schools are ranked near the bottom among our peers in the commonwealth. To make matters worse, this year we face an unprecedented financial shortfall that could seriously impact our progress in the school system.
As elected officials, government administrators, business leaders and community residents, our priorities for the city should include creating an environment that encourages entrepreneurship and produces good jobs. Obtaining these goals requires a high-quality education system. While we can provide the very best services to our adult residents, enjoy wonderful capital amenities and a high quality of recreational life, there will always be a ceiling on how strong we can be as a community if we find it acceptable to have barely 51 percent of our students graduate from high school on time. This will be what we are known for and will have a direct and negative financial impact on the city for generations to come.
This is going to be a tough year financially for everyone and, with an expected $15 million budget shortfall, our schools will not be exempt. As with any enterprise that runs on a budget, the Roanoke school board and city council have tough decisions to make. These decisions pale in comparison, however, to the thought of having to halt, and maybe reverse, the progress we have made in improving the quality of our city schools. The troubled economy and loss of 10 percent of the resources that go to our schools could result in school closures and classroom size expansion, which means children may find themselves getting less attention and instruction than needed. I worry about the devastating effect this may have on our most vulnerable students and their families.
During times of shrinking budgets, we are forced to take a hard look at our expenditures. A byproduct of this examination is that we will have an opportunity to identify areas of unnecessary spending, such as programs that are underused or outdated, and generally make government function more efficiently for citizens. And certainly, like other areas of government, our schools will and must find some areas to reduce expenses. But a $15 million budget shortfall cannot be recovered by cuts to superfluous spending; rather, this shortage will require tremendous gouges to our system -- cuts that are far deeper than our students should have to endure.
A top-quality education is the one, common way for people to improve their lives, positively change their circumstances and continue to push forward the limits of innovation and accomplishment. With the many challenges we face throughout our community, this is the gift we can give to Roanoke's children, all of whom deserve a chance and all of whom need an education for the success of their individual and our collective futures.
Unfortunately, perception and politics are a part of the reality we face. But the future of our schools, the quality of education afforded our children and our priorities must transcend perception and politics. These are our schools. Their success will determine the long-term economic future of our city, which includes the jobs that we have for our residents. These issues affect children from all socio-economic households, regardless of whether these effects are immediate or arise in the future. If we are not willing to stand up for our schools, then it is my belief that we are misguided in where our priorities should be.
This is about leadership and whether Roanoke City Council is willing to do whatever necessary to support the city schools and the tough decisions they face. We should be ready to roll up our sleeves, get down in the trenches and work alongside the school board to try to figure out a way, as hard and painful as it will be, to protect our schools as much as possible. It is not any student's fault that we are in troubled economic times and financial hardship. It is not their fault that state revenues are down. It would sadden me deeply if we are not willing to try our best to make the coming school years as stable and smooth as possible.