Perhaps we found common ground in support for schools

April 8, 2014

I’ve always had sympathy for public school administrators. First, they’re responsible for educating all the children sent to them, some of whom couldn’t care less about being in school.

Second, they wind up dealing with a lot of social problems, many of which they shouldn’t have to worry about.

And third, they have to go directly to the people to ask for tax increases, which is hard enough even in good times.

It’s the only tax people get to vote up or down themselves, and lately we’ve been inundated with potential tax increases. Two are from Gov. Markell, a 10-cent gas tax increase to pay for transportation projects and a property tax to pay for cleaning up the state’s waterways.

The third caught people by surprise: Sussex Tech announced it was $4 million in the hole and would need an immediate tax increase to avert a layoff of 24 staff members.

Both of Markell’s proposals face stiff headwinds in the General Assembly, and as for Sussex Tech’s request, even Sussex County legislators aren’t supporting an increase. (Unlike the regular school districts, such as Cape Henlopen, Sussex Tech requires tax increase approvals through the Legislature, not by referendum.)

But with all those proposals in the air, I was afraid Cape’s referendum would suffer by getting lumped in with other, less popular, causes. It didn’t. Which is a tribute to both the Cape staff and to the voters, many of whom not only have no children in school now, they never did. They retired here.

When I spoke to state representative candidate Marie Mayor recently she mentioned the need for finding common ground between longtime locals - some whose families have lived here for generations - and people who moved here more recently.

It would be nice to think that common ground included the school district and an understanding about the need for a good education.

As we left the polling place last week, Helen and I noted the number of retirement-aged voters. Some people, I know, take this position: I don’t have kids in school any more; why should I vote to increase my taxes? But many people rejected that notion.

I’m assuming, of course, that some of the people we saw did vote for the referendum. But with the measure passing by an overwhelming 60 percent of the vote, I think that’s a fair assumption.

I think they realized that supporting education is important for society as a whole and not just for parents of schoolkids. And ultimately, it’s also in the financial interest of homeowners to live in districts with good schools.

As for Sussex Tech, I’m not going to pile on about how district officials should have known - or announced - earlier they faced such a serious deficit. Others have already spoken. But the problem could prove to be a watershed for the district.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, has already called for Sussex Tech board members to be elected, to allow for more accountability. (They are now appointed by the governor.) She has also suggested Sussex Tech should have to raise taxes by referendum, just like other districts.

These are good ideas, but I think we need to step back and consider a more basic question: What are we trying to do at the state vocational schools?

I say “vocational,” but they aren’t vocational schools the way they were when I went to Cape. Back then kids went to vo-tech specifically to learn a trade. Nowadays, Sussex Tech is as much college-prep as it is vocational.

One of the issues Briggs King mentioned was a Sussex Tech partnership with Widener University to provide college-level courses. The third story on the Sussex Tech website announces a program about preparing for college.

These programs may be good ideas, but they raise the question about what our goals are at the vocational schools. There are many technical and healthcare careers that don’t require a four-year degree.

At a recent town meeting at Cape Henlopen High School - in response to a question from the audience - Markell said it was time to “start a conversation” about vocational education.

That time is now.

Also on the education front, I can’t help being surprised that parents are worried about their high school students reading “Brave New World.” (Cape Gazette cartoonist Chris Wildt nailed the issue in Friday’s paper.)

Do they imagine their kids are free from the corrupting influence of internet porn - not to mention all kinds of internet junk - video games, movies, TV shows, their own friends? Heck, if they aren’t mature enough to read “Brave New World” they shouldn’t read a newspaper. (And no, I’m not suggesting that the book is a corrupting influence. Helen read it for a high school class in the ‘70s and managed to survive with her morals intact.)

Parents concerned “Brave New World” may corrupt their children better be prepared to enter a Brave New World.

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