City of Winston-Salem must prevent loss of teachers

by Jim Longworth

No one knows which came first, the chicken or the egg. That’s because one makes the other possible, and vice versa. It’s much the same with education and economic development. Most municipal and privatesector leaders will tell you that there would be no teachers if it weren’t for taxes generated by business and industry. But who would be qualified to own, manage or work in those businesses if there were no teachers?

It’s all fun fodder for civic debate until the rhetoric becomes relevant to a crisis. That’s what happened earlier this month when, faced with a state budget shortfall of unprecedented proportions due to a reduction in private sector tax revenues, Gov. Beverly Perdue let it be known that anything and everything was subject to slashing. That, in turn, prompted Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Don Martin to announce that he might have to lay off as many as 1,000 people, most of them teachers and teaching assistants.

Last year, local schools faced a similar crisis, but for most districts the federal stimulus money prevented teacher layoffs. That funding has now dried up.

Meanwhile, Perdue hasn’t ruled out extending a temporary tax which is set to expire this summer, but the GOP legislature isn’t likely to go along.

That leaves local government. By law, it is the county which funds public schools, but Forsyth commissioners are already contributing 30 percent of their budget for education, and there’s just no more blood that can be squeezed out of that turnip. City council, meanwhile, has no legal obligation to contribute financially to the schools operating budget, but it is not prohibited from helping in non-traditional ways. For example, the city has pools of money available for economic development, some of which come from the Dell refund. City officials, however, don’t believe they should tap that resource unless private-sector jobs are at stake.

I asked Mayor Allen Joines to comment on my proposal for the city to use Dell monies to prevent the loss of teachers. Said Joines, “I believe it is better to fuel private-sector jobs and investment so that tax revenues can grow to be able to support a sustained education system. If Dell repayment [funds] were used, it would only be available for one year, and then the schools would likely be in the same position next year.

Perdue let it be known that anything and everything was subject to slashing.

Whereas, if the funds are used to bring a company here such as Caterpillar, the property and sales-tax revenues would be ongoing and available to support schools and other local needs… the state legislature should figure out a way to save these jobs and not transfer the problem to the local community.”

Martin offered this observation: “As companies such as Caterpillar look to relocate, one of the key indicators that they examine is the educational level of the workforce… while education jobs are not thought of as traditional economic development, the loss of an education job has the same impact as the loss of any private-sector job, except that counties and cities will not lose any property tax, and the state will not lose corporate tax. If the city does not want to increase its unemployment rate or reduce sales tax, then using one-time money earmarked for economic development to prevent those job losses next year makes sense.”

And as for Joines’ argument that a one-time contribution is temporary because the schools would “likely be in the same position next year,” state Superintendent June Atkinson told me: “Without an investment in public education, economic development and growth cannot be sustained in any community. We cannot predict with certainty what will happen with the future economy, but we can predict with certainty that an uneducated workforce will move a community to low-wage, low skill jobs or to no new jobs at all.”

Time and again, cities come up with perks and funds in order to keep an existing industry from moving away. It’s a way of saving jobs. So why not do the same to prevent the loss of a thousand teachers? My friend, Mayor Joines, argues that using Dell refund monies to help avert a school crisis would only be a temporary measure, but in the wake of the American Express call center closing, we cannot afford another massive layoff, and a year-long reprieve for teachers would give the economy more time to improve.

City council may have no legal obligation to fund education, but it certainly has a moral one. Teachers and economic development are the chicken and the egg all over again, but in this scenario, teachers come first.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).