Commentary: Shenandoah County needs to invest in our schools

Here’s a sobering fact: in the last 10 years, the median age of a Shenandoah County resident increased from just under 41 years to almost 44, compared to a statewide average of 37.5 years. These differences may not seem like large increments, but if the trend-line continues and Shenandoah County’s population continues to age, it will have real implications for the economy.

Many parents’ primary hope for their children is that after they complete their education, they will find a job in another area with better economic prospects. Many of our brightest young adults are fulfilling that sad hope. Families “in their spending years” are a major driver of a local economy. With rare exception, an aging population is a sign of a faltering economy. Now more than ever, Shenandoah County needs to attract new businesses and new residents.

When my wife and I decided to move from Alexandria to Edinburg in 2005, none of our friends asked us about real estate taxes in Shenandoah County. Nearly everyone asked us about the schools. At the time, we could answer that the schools were pretty good. If we were making the same decision today, we might have to give a less categorical answer. In constant 2015 dollars, per-pupil spending in our schools dropped by about 13 percent between 2007 and 2014.

The new economy is producing a great many jobs that can be done from anywhere. The “Beltway boom” [whatever one thinks of the policies that are causing it] is producing a great many jobs that need some access to metro D.C., but which do not require one to be at a desk in Washington every day. To people who hold such jobs, our county has much to offer – natural beauty, wholesome small-town values, low cost-of-living and friendly people. Such jobs are often better-paying, and such people can contribute a lot to the local economy.

However, families who have the means to choose where they want to live generally don’t locate in areas that won’t invest in education. Business leaders make the same calculus; they do not locate facilities in areas where their children and those of their employees will be in weak schools, or where they face hiring from a poorly educated workforce. I have heard some suggest that surrounding jurisdictions invest more in education because they have stronger economies. I consider it at least as plausible that they have stronger economies because they invest more in education.

According to the Virginia Department of Education Superintendent’s report, Shenandoah County spends about $750 less per-pupil per-year than the average jurisdiction in our region, and $1,750 less than the average jurisdiction in our state. If this trend persists, then over a 13-year kindergarten through 12th grade career, the average graduate of our schools will receive $9,750 – an entire year’s worth of education spending – less than the average graduate from another school division in our region, against whom he or she will have to compete in college or in the workforce.

These sorts of statistics will give pause to families and businesses that consider locating in Shenandoah County, and take my word, they will do the research to find out.

The good news is this: on the whole, Shenandoah County’s schools continue to be reasonably competitive. The investments made by previous generations continue to pay dividends, though this is not indefinitely sustainable. The difference in taxes between the education budget enacted in 2014 and fully funding the School Division’s request wasn’t that much. For the owner of a $200,000 home, it would have been about $60/year or 20 cents a day. Twenty cents a day would have made a substantial down payment on improving education in our county.

A community’s commitment to education reflects that community’s commitment to its future. Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools has organized hundreds of parents in our county in support of a vibrant and energetic future with a growing economy and strong schools.

Dan Walsh, of Edinburg, is founder of Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools