By Roger Thompson
Bigger does not always mean better. A prime example of that would be our local public schools. If I had young children today, there’s no way I would want them to go to a huge school in a metropolitan district. I think the quality of education and the learning environment in our smaller, rural districts offers a better experience for children in terms of quality of education, safety, relationships, and parental and community support.
I think there are many reasons for this. In a small community, people know each other. Your child’s teacher may be a neighbor, or be in your Sunday school class. The principal or superintendent may live just down the street, or you may run into them at the grocery store. These are our friends, family and neighbors.
It’s also important to remember that these schools are the backbone of rural communities. Much of the town may turn out for the football, basketball and baseball games. They support their teams and their schools. They’re a social hub for citizens, and help define communities. The academic and athletic accomplishments of the students are a source of pride for the entire town.
But as our world becomes increasingly driven by technology, there’s a critical need to ensure the education our students receive in rural schools include the courses necessary to compete and succeed throughout their lives. We can’t understate the importance of STEM education—which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. I had the opportunity to attend a statewide conference on STEM education this fall, and it underscored this fact. These courses offer the foundation needed to earn degrees or certification in fields offering some of the highest salaries in the workforce.
Recruiting and keeping the teachers with the background needed to teach STEM courses means we must continue to identify and secure additional resources to make teacher salaries more competitive. But we also must take another look at how existing resources are allocated. I believe we can do more with the funding we have and still protect our rural schools from politicians in big cities who think the answer is to close them—that’s not the answer, and I will fight to prevent that from ever happening.
I have advocated allowing—not mandating—schools to share some administrative costs. Last session I authored SB 932, which would have allowed public schools to enter into mutual contracts with a treasurer or other financial officer. It would have required an individual serving in such position to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in finance or a finance-related field and 40 hours of State Department of Education training, to be completed within 15 months of hiring. Under the proposal, districts that entered into such mutual contracts would have been able to access the School Consolidation Assistance Fund, similar to the way districts that enter into a mutual contract with a superintendent can. The fund would have paid for 50 percent of the treasurer or financial officer’s salary or wages for up to three years, not to exceed $100,000.
While the bill won the unanimous support of the Senate, the session ended without final House action on the measure. I believe we need to continue to find innovative ways to help give our districts the option of sharing such administrative costs, freeing up more resources for the classroom.