Letter: Look at the whole picture
In reply to letters published last week by Sharon Slaughter and Richard Hicks, it seems necessary to point out some discrepancies between the statements made and available information. First, I believe that Ms. Slaughter was referring to data published on the Virginia Department of Education website, in particular the section "Superintendents’ Annual Report," which readers can find at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/statistics_reports/supts_annual_report/2009_10/index.shtml.
There is a great deal of information in these reports and it is worthwhile to examine them. Directly comparing one school system to another using the data requires more information than is included in the individual reports, though. For instance, Ms. Slaughter states that Middlesex’s school system is larger than Mathews, but the average daily membership for the most recent year (2009-2010 in this case) shows that the ADM in Mathews was 1,239 versus 1,191 for Middlesex.
Ms. Slaughter was using the grade 8-12 membership, the most recent report for this being the 2008-2009 school year, which does match her reported figure, but doesn’t include the whole school system. Curiously, though, the school report card section lists the membership at Mathews High School as 424 students for 2009/2010, while the reported number of students at Middlesex High School was 414. Again, Mathews is the larger school system, not the smaller one, although again the difference is small.
Middlesex did do better on this year’s SOL testing, although the differences are not statistically significant (no differences greater than 5 percent) and vary from year to year. In the 2008 to 2009 school year, the systems each did better in two areas, a tie.
It is hard to assess anything without asking "compared to what" at some point. Comparing individual lines on the various reports is interesting but may be difficult when things like part-time positions versus full-time positions are not well differentiated. This may partially explain the difference in the number of aides between the systems. It may also explain why the Middlesex aides are paid $15,307 on average, while Mathews aides are paid $10,374 on average—another part of the picture that was left out of the previous letters.
In addition, I noticed the writers left out the most relevant statistic that taxpayers interested in cost versus performance might include—the per-pupil cost in Middlesex is $10,061 in the latest reported year and the per-pupil cost in Mathews was $9,750. It is telling that despite the reported discrepancies in staffing and costs, Mathews still managed to come in lower in per-pupil cost.
Not thinking about the whole picture is one of the reasons that citizens wonder why private school tuition is sometimes less than public school per-pupil expenditures. When private schools begin to assess special-needs students at two years of age, educate them until 22 years of age, provide interscholastic athletic programs at the high school level (I am assuming here the most common comparison is with Ware Academy, which doesn’t provide high school education) and takes all comers—then maybe a comparison can be made.
Teachers usually go to college for four years to get their undergraduate degree and many have master’s degrees as well. They generally undertake this commitment without assurance of employment. If they are employed, they trade potential for high incomes for a steady income and some job security. So far, in the three years that the teachers in Mathews have gone without step increases, a teacher who started three years ago has given up approximately $48,000 over a 35-year career.
No taxpayer has been asked for even a $100 real estate tax increase during these three years. In addition, tax rates are very sensitive to perceived economic factors so they fluctuate both up and down, especially at the local level. What are the realistic chances that any of these teachers will get these step increases and associated back pay at some day in the future? For Mr. Hicks to say that teachers are lucky to have a job and should accept pay cuts is selfish. Our community owes our teachers at least an effort to meet commitments such as step increases. Teachers have taken a large financial hit already in the current economic situation. It is time for the taxpayers to step up to the plate.
There is a "compared to what" for tax burden as well. Virginia is among the bottom 10 states in tax burden on its citizens. Virginians get back more federal money than they pay in federal taxes. Mathews County is 122nd out of 135 taxing localities in Virginia in terms of tax burden. It is easy to feel overtaxed, but if a sincere effort is made to really compare our tax burden to others, it is clear that we are not overtaxed in comparison to the vast majority of Virginians or Americans.
We can and we should raise taxes to provide a step increase for our school staff. The school board didn’t even ask for that in their budget, though. They just asked for level funding, which requires an increase in the local contribution only because the state cut its level of support based on the formulas used to assess the ability of a locality to pay for its needs—the Composite Index. Whether the formula is perfect or not, it is an objective measurement of the community’s ability to support itself and Mathews scores fairly high in ability. This makes balancing the budget on the backs of our school system employees both unfair and unnecessary.