Having been born in Southern California does not, in and of itself, make me a southerner, but it may have inclined me to embracing some of the wit and wisdom that emanates from my adopted region. Sayings like “what goes around, comes around”, which holds true even in in reverse, and contractions like “y’all”, efficiently clarifying the singular or plural nature of the second person pronoun, I assimilated long ago. Another very serviceable southern-ism that won me over is the axiom that when someone asserts “it’s not about the money, it’s the principle”, you can expect the issue indeed to be about the money.
The ongoing and quite unfortunate saga of toxic relations between our two locally elected governing bodies once more revolves around money. Beggared, as it is, by a state code that forces it ever to rely on “the kindness of strangers” — from the U. S. President and Congress, the Virginia Governor and General Assembly, and the Portsmouth City Manager and Council — for its funding, the Portsmouth School Board is perhaps as constrained in its use of funds as any elected body on earth. It has no power to tax or issue bonds to raise money, no “rainy day fund” for emergencies, and no legal claim to moneys remaining unspent at the end of a fiscal year.
Our city manager and city council decide in the budget process how much local funding to allocate to the school system. Because of the chronic resource constraints that our municipality faces — a high percentage of non-taxable real estate, lower median income than elsewhere in our region, a higher rate of unemployment than in neighboring cities — Portsmouth receives more support for education from the commonwealth than do most other Virginia localities. Nonetheless, the city contribution to the school budget is an indispensable part of the total funding package.
In the final work session of 2013, the city manager and chief financial officer presented council with information showing that the school system had not met its statutory requirement of returning its unspent FY 2013 local funds. Last night the manager followed up with additional detail, including a discussion of one of the mechanisms employed to conceal the money, issuance of non-standard purchase orders near the end of the fiscal year. (The handouts distributed at the meeting is available from the PortsmouthCityWatch.org document library.) These revelations follow a very unequivocal finding by a 2012 special grand jury that the School Board had for several years failed to comply with state code in its handling of end of fiscal year residual funds.
As a Portsmouth Public Schools booster, I am deeply distressed to see the city and schools administrations in a renewed dispute over prior funding. We are on the cusp of the FY 2015 budget season, and this quarrel will likely further erode the credibility of the School Board and School Administration. I caution, though, that as straightforward and convincing as the city argument appears at this point, we need to withhold judgment until the school administration provides an official response. Equally, if not more, important is that however the facts fall out, we must ensure that the next budget does not shortchange our students, their parents, school staff, and, ultimately, our community as a whole, because of poisoned relations between our local governing bodies. The argument is about the money; we all have a significant stake in resolving it in accordance with the law and for the furtherance of the greater good.
Mark Geduldig-Yatrofsky for PortsmouthCityWatch.org