09/26/12: Two cents for schools

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

I BELIEVE that children are our future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way.

George Benson recorded those words as the theme song for “The Greatest,” a film about Muhammad Ali. The movie was released in 1977, and it became the theme of my 1978 class of Phoebus High School. You may be more familiar with the mega-hit version released in 1986 by Whitney Houston, but it is Benson’s version that rang in my ears as I read of the proposal of Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim to increase the real estate tax to finance school construction.

“Two cents for two schools for our kids,” Fraim said Monday at the City Council’s annual retreat.

There is little doubt that Norfolk’s school buildings are aging and in need of replacement. Two new schools, including the new $31 million Crossroads Elementary, and one renovation are all that the city has been able to accomplish in the past five years.

Plans for four other schools, at an estimated cost of $103.5 million, are on the drawing board. Norfolk Public Schools consist of 35 elementary schools, eight middle schools and five high schools.

More than two years ago, I wrote in this space that I am in favor of whatever it takes to make Norfolk the best school system in the region. Numerous studies have shown that good schools lead to higher home values. I know of no one who is against higher property values.

It takes a lot of different things to achieve better schools, among them smaller class sizes, better teacher pay and better prepared students. Oh — and newer school buildings.

A 2011 study found that new school buildings affect the behavior of both students and staff. Conducted by Eddie Edgerton of the University of the West of Scotland, the study found that new buildings contribute to reducing negative behavior, increasing student self-esteem and encouraging them to engage more.

“These findings imply that the physical environment in which teaching and learning take place is important and needs to be considered as a key factor in the educational process,” Edgerton said at the conference in which he presented the study’s findings.

The additional two cents in taxes in Norfolk would cost the owner of a $200,000 home — the approximate value of an average home in the city — an extra $40 per year. Put another way, if our property values increased just 2 percent, the average homeowner would pay an extra $40 a year at the current rate.

A few years ago, we’d all laugh at a 2 percent increase in property values. After three years of falling values, 2 percent looks pretty good right now.

No one is saying that property values will increase right away. Investing in our schools is a long-term project.

Like any other investment, a little pain now will result in gains in the future. I do, however, want assurances from the council that the additional taxes will be dedicated to school construction — put into a trust fund-type arrangement — and not allowed to be used for other purposes.

I believe that children are our future. And if we teach them well — and provide the opportunity for them to succeed — they will lead the way.