07/28/10: The classroom as prime real estate

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

WHEW! It’s been at least 24 hours since the Norfolk Public Schools have been in the news. Every time I read another story about something bad happening in the school system, I cringe. Not because I have children in the schools, because I don’t — never have and never will. And not because it reflects poorly on the school system, the School Board and the City Council — because it does.

No, I cringe because it affects one of my most prized possessions: my home.

Localities in Virginia, laboring under the antiquated Dillon Rule, rely heavily on real estate taxes as a source of operating revenue. In Norfolk’s 2011 budget, real estate taxes account for more than 26 percent of the general fund revenues, with only the commonwealth’s aid, at 40 percent, accounting for a larger share.

Conventional wisdom has long said that there is a correlation between property values and public schools: the better the schools, the higher the values. Numerous studies show that buyers consider the quality of the public schools the No. 1 issue when deciding where to buy and are willing to pay more to live in the areas with better schools.

When Norfolk launched its “Come Home to Norfolk” campaign a few years ago, a consultant from South Carolina was brought in. I recall asking him what was the one thing that Norfolk could do to make the project a success. He gave the answer I expected: a great school system.

A recent Wall Street Journal article brought forth another wrinkle in this. Across the country, falling property values have lured some buyers into the market with the hopes of getting into communities with good public schools at a lower price. Many of those buyers end up being disappointed because housing values in areas with good public schools are holding their value better than those in areas without them. In Chapel Hill, for example, housing prices have dropped 4.8 percent, but are still 48 percent higher than homes in the Raleigh-Cary area.

That big sucking sound you hear is the value of our homes going down with each new revelation of something happening in Norfolk’s public schools, even if it is not reflected in your assessment. I keep asking myself: Where are the advocates for the public schools? Why don’t I hear anything from anyone other than school employees?

I’ve lived in Norfolk for more than 30 years. I’ve watched the revitalization efforts of the city — Ghent, Robin Hood, Lafayette Shores, East Ocean View and downtown, to name a few — yet real estate agents continue to steer new Hampton Roads arrivals away from Norfolk. Many of those moving into the renovated areas of our fair city have the means or make the choice to send their children to private school or to home school.

Despite the investment of Norfolk taxpayers — some 39 percent of our budget dollars go to education — our school system is not where it should be. While I am hopeful that the new superintendent, aided by the revamped School Board, will be able to improve things, I also hope other leaders step up to make it clear that good public schools are not just a priority, but the priority, because so much of the rest follows from that.

It is in our vested interest to see the schools be the very best that they can be. Somehow, we’ve each got to do our part to make that happen, whether it be volunteering at the schools, mentoring a student or two or just joining the PTA.

In this “me first” society of ours, I’ll admit that I’m selfish in wanting my property values to go up and my taxes to go down. I don’t see that happening unless Norfolk has the best school system in the region. Whatever it takes to get there, I’m for it.

And because it affects what is many people’s largest single asset, we should all want it.

Oh yeah, and the side benefit? A well-educated populace.