Commentary: Strong schools boost local economy

In the last few years it has become clear that there are two very philosophical differences of opinion about public education and community/economic development in Shenandoah County. On one side there are those that seek to perpetuate a notion that Shenandoah County is a dying, aging community with taxes that are too high; believing the only solution to lack of economic development is to cut spending and lower taxes. There is never any talk of diversifying revenue streams or making investments in economic development. This “only cut spending” approach would in effect further magnify the problem underfunding essential services and discouraging businesses from locating here.

We don’t subscribe to that false narrative. Our real estate tax rate is second lowest in the region and communities to the north and south of us with higher taxes are seeing economic growth. Businesses are not passing over Shenandoah County because our taxes are high. They pass over Shenandoah County because they do not see us making investments in our students, in our communities, or in our futures. We subscribe to a different outlook. We believe Shenandoah County is a great place to live and raise a family. We believe having strong schools is paramount to economic development. Quality schools are the basis for everything else. Good schools are required for producing a competitive and desirable work force. Good schools attract families. Young professionals with families looking for a place to live will choose the areas that prioritize education over those that don’t.   Businesses look for places where they can be part of a community. Where they know their investments and involvement are being valued and matched by the local government and community. Businesses and people don’t pass over Shenandoah County because taxes are high. They avoid Shenandoah County because of the negative rhetoric they see and hear directed at our schools, our county employees, and our parents.

Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools was started in part as a response to that rhetoric. PASS is increasing awareness and understanding around public school education among parents and converting that awareness into action and involvement. The School Board has sent an operational budget to the Board of Supervisors that requests additional funds over last year’s allocation to address numerous needs that have gone unfunded for several years. For example we have schools without full-time nurses and school buses that are 20 years old. We cannot continue to ignore these needs, because the list will only get longer every year.

A little over half of the school system’s funding comes from the state, most of the rest comes from local taxes, largely real estate tax revenue. That tax payment depends on the value of the property and the tax rate. Currently our tax rate is $0.57, second lowest in the region. Before the reassessment an owner with a home assessed at $230,000 would pay $1,311 annually in real estate taxes. Let’s say based on the average decline in property value of 4.1 percent that same home is now assessed at $220,570. For the county to remain revenue neutral and fully fund the School Board’s operational request, the tax rate would have to increase to 66 cents . At a rate of 66 cents and the new assessed value that home owner would pay $1,455 annually. That comes out to $144 more a year or 39 cents more per day than at the previous rate and assessed value. Thirty-nine cents a day to put our kids on safer buses, repair old roofs, upgrade the Internet network infrastructure, and replace broken instruments. Doesn’t that seem like a worthwhile investment?

In Shenandoah County our effort to fund our public schools does not match our ability to pay for public education. From a Virginia Education Association report based on state data, in 2013-14 Shenandoah County ranked 58th out of 132 localities in ability to pay for public education, while ranking only 69th in effort to fund our public schools.   In contrast, Frederick County’s effort outranked their ability by 50, and Rockingham County’s effort outpaced their ability by 34. The effort put into something shows how much it’s valued. We believe the majority of residents value public education and believe we can do better and that our children deserve better. Email or call your supervisor this week and express your desire to start placing a higher value on public education and to step up our county’s effort.

Abby Walters is vice president and Seth Coffman is treasurer for Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools.