Editorial – Be transparent on cause of public schools’ fiscal mess

Published 4:54 pm Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The last thing Isle of Wight County Schools needs right now is a crisis of citizen confidence in the division’s fiscal management.

Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are invested annually in public education. Property owners fund schools directly through real estate and car taxes, then contribute more indirectly through the substantial state and federal tax money that flows into the school division.

Overspending its fiscal 2023 budget by $700,000 — roughly $100,000 more than had been previously disclosed — is a big deal. That it took the county’s auditors to reveal that the problem was deeper than what had been self-reported by school administrators is even more troubling.

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Superintendent Theo Cramer, on whose watch the fiscal mess has unfolded, is saying the right things.

“The buck stops with me as superintendent,” he said at this month’s School Board meeting. “I vow to our community, to our staff, to the Board of Supervisors, to you our board, to our students that we will do everything necessary to ensure that we correct these mistakes. … There are no excuses; we must get this work done.”

And so the community eagerly awaits what Cramer said will be a written report thoroughly documenting the problem and its causes. We urge Cramer to be completely candid in that report, avoiding any spin that might gloss over a serious matter.

We also urge complete transparency by the School Board.

Chairman Jason Maresh hinted at consequences for those responsible, saying the matter had been addressed in a closed-door session of the board.

“There has been some accountability; it’s been taken care of,” Maresh said, offering no specifics.

Maresh incorrectly stated that the Virginia Freedom of Information Act prohibited the board from making public its accountability actions.

As we often have to remind elected and appointed officials in this space, unless you’re dealing in classified information threatening national security, there’s no requirement of secrecy. Virginia’s FOIA law says you can keep information secret in some circumstances, but it doesn’t say you must, or even that you should.   

In the case of personnel actions, public officials must balance the feelings and privacy of individuals with citizens’ right to know. When $700,000 was spent that the schools didn’t have, and many months later we still don’t know how or why, we submit strongly that the latter trumps the former.