Letter: In defense of paying attention

I am writing to defend Jeff and Regina Knight (yes, husband and wife), Jim Gannon and the other citizens participating in the Rappahannock County school budget process who were singled out for sarcastic vitriol by the unfailingly snarky Ben Jones. Mr. Jones apparently lacks the class to engage in a civil and respectful discussion on the merits of his position but rather cowers behind the well-worn political tactic of ad hominum attacks on those with whom he disagrees. This, of course, is a form of intellectual cowardice intended to distract attention from his paucity of cogent arguments. Mr. Jones would be well served to observe the letter that followed his in which Mrs. Swindler, while unreservedly supporting the schools and teachers, and generally agreeing with his positions, did so in a sincere and temperate manner without sarcasm or name-calling.

Mr. Jones apparently assumes that any citizen who dares to express a negative opinion on any aspect of proposals relating to the school budget is somehow motivated by politics. Perhaps it is Mr. Jones who is fixated on partisan politics and sees everything through this distorted lens.

As we are all aware, the school budget process contemplates public comments. Hopefully, these comments will be considered when fashioning a final budget that meets the needs of the schools in a fiscally responsible manner. Most of the citizens at whom Mr. Jones levels his smug abuse, as well as the undersigned, stated in public meetings that they were not necessarily opposed to teacher and staff raises, nor did they in any way deny the many positive accomplishments of the schools, teachers and students. They urged only that the budget not be inflated for unnecessary additions and requested that efforts be made to find possible savings. Mr. Jones’ nasty and personally insulting criticism of these citizens only accentuates his small-mindedness.

Regarding Mr. Jones’ personal attack on Mrs. Knight’s “offense” of uncovering and reporting facts about the schools’ less-than-stellar academic performance, rather than accepting the possibility that these results may indicate some need for remedial action, he churlishly attacks the messenger. He excoriates her for, among other insults, her ignorance of rural Virginia (what, pray tell, is the relevance?) and her failure to understand that the academic under-performance must result from a disparity in funding compared with larger counties and parochial schools. He ignores the demonstrable fact that neither the level of school funding nor the compensation of teachers is necessarily an indicator of academic success.

As to the unfavorable comparison with parochial schools cited by Mrs. Knight, Mr. Jones displays an incredibly ignorant and out-of-date perspective. Very few “sisters” teach in these schools and haven’t for decades. Parochial schools primarily employ lay teachers and staff who receive salaries, pensions and health care and also have homes and families to support. The “Catholic Church” does not fund or underwrite the parochial schools. These schools are funded primarily by tuition, with the difference in total student cost being subsidized by the local parish and diocese, as well as parent booster/PTO programs.

All these amounts, however, are included in the cost per student used in Mrs. Knight’s analysis. As she accurately points out, the total cost per student in parochial schools is very comparable to the total cost in Rappahannock schools. There are no secret monetary infusions from the Vatican. It is interesting to note, in addition, that while teachers’ salaries in parochial schools are generally below the level of Rappahannock schools, the parochial schools still achieve better academic results.

In conclusion, Mr. Jones’ mean-spirited, politically motivated, personal attacks are nothing more than a clumsy attempt to intimidate and stifle legitimate public involvement in a process that accounts for a substantial portion of the county’s budget. I believe it is a particularly hopeful sign that an ever-growing number of citizens are paying attention to these important local fiscal matters. Reasonable people may disagree on many aspects of the budget process, but Mr. Jones should be on notice that concerned citizens who may not agree with him will not be dissuaded from speaking out by his intellectually vacuous personal attacks.

Hurley D. Smith

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