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City, schools, building trust

Virginia school systems are dependent on the state's cities and counties to give them the money they need to properly educate our young people.

Of course, with school spending making up by far the largest part of any city or county budget these days, there's bound to be some natural disagreement between the two sides on whether the jurisdiction is spending enough on education.

That's why it's crucial that school boards, superintendents and school finance chiefs have frequent and frank conversations with city councils, city managers and city finance folks about how much the schools truly need and how much the city can afford.

It shouldn't always have to be an argument: Both sides have a strong interest in having both quality schools and reasonably low property taxes.

But a recent public dispute between Newport News School Board Chairman Jeff Stodghill and City Manager Jim Bourey leads us to believe that there's been a significant communications breakdown between the two sides.

Here's the background:

A few years ago, real estate developer W.M. Jordan embarked an ambitious new project, Tech Center, in the Oyster Point section of Newport News. As planned, the development would include not only restaurants, retailers and an upscale Whole Foods — all of which have come — but also lots of new office space, which is still on the way.

As part of freeing up the space for some 11 new office buildings, the city plans to spend about $36.6 million to move an existing school bus transportation hub out of the way and make other site improvements.

The center, called the Service Center for Operations and Transportation, is expected to soon be moved from behind the Applied Research Center and Jefferson Labs to a completely new location near Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.

The center's current location, on 33 acres, is owned by the Newport News school division. But the city must take ownership of that land before W.M. Jordan can start building its new office buildings there.

So now, Mr. Stodghill is playing his ace in the hole: the school division's title to the coveted land. He told the Daily Press last week that the School Board will likely refuse to turn over that property unless and until the city agrees to certain terms for the new site.

These terms include that the city provide "complete and adequate funding" for the relocation; that the new center have at least 133,000 square-feet of indoor space and sufficient parking spaces; that the new site be "move-in" ready with new technology; and that the school division gets to sign off on the building designs before it's built.

Though these terms were included in a resolution the school board passed in September, they are not binding on the city in any way.

Mr. Stodghill — who clearly doesn't trust the city much these days — wants Mr. Bourey to agree to these terms in writing. If he doesn't, Mr. Stodghill says, the School Board will likely simply not turn over the needed land.

We believe that it only makes sense for the land transfer for the bus center property be hashed out on paper.

Even if everyone was getting along, it's too important an agreement to move forward on a handshake alone. But the fact that the school division doesn't trust the city calls even more strongly for a written agreement.

Of course, this dispute — and Mr. Stodghill's decision last week to go public about the matter with the Daily Press — is not taking place in a vacuum.

In recent years, there's been a growing discontent among school officials who believe the city has been skimping the division on spending for repairs and renovations to school buildings.

For example, the School Board asked the city for $80.5 million for capital improvements over the next five years. Instead, the city's budget plan calls for giving the schools only about half that amount, or $42.4 million.

If that gap holds, the school division says it would have to delay some crucial renovations in the coming years, such as building a new Huntington Middle School and replacing many leaky roofs and outdated HVAC systems.

We don't agree that the city should simply give the school system a blank check for everything on its wish list, of course.

At the same time, Mr. Stodghill correctly notes that the capital funding gap between the sides — $38.1 million — is close to the $36.6 million the city expects to spend on the bus center relocation and site improvements. If the city weren't doing that, he points out, there would more money for school renovations and repairs.

After they get a written agreement hammered out on the land transfer, it's high time for Mr. Bourey and Mr. Stodghill, along with Superintendent Ashby Kilgore, to work on rebuilding their relationship.

Our students are depending on them to do so.

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