Why I write about public schools so much

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 4/19/19

I’ve been a reporter professionally for nearly three years now — with a couple small breaks here and there — and no topic has fascinated me more than education, specifically public …

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Why I write about public schools so much

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I’ve been a reporter professionally for nearly three years now — with a couple small breaks here and there — and no topic has fascinated me more than education, specifically public education.

I didn’t go to public schools, not even for college — a hat tip here seems appropriate to my alma mater, Elon University, a private school. Neither did my younger brother. So perhaps it’s my lack of personal experience as a student and my desire to learn more.

I did spend a couple years working for a public school system, including a few months in the classroom. My wife is a public school teacher in nearby Lee County. So there’s definitely a lot of personal reasons why public education would be interesting.

But it’s been remarked to me on a couple occasions that I’ve written a lot about schools, particularly Chatham County Schools, since I started working for the News + Record in December, and apart from my personal interest and personal ties to public education, there’s three main reasons I’ve invested a lot of time, energy and effort into learning and sharing.

CCS is the largest single employer in the county. The total number, as of April 1, was 1,654 total employees. That’s more than any other business or industry in Chatham. Mountaire could pass it in the next couple years now that the Siler City plant is complete and up and running, but CCS’ employment number is significant.

If we lived in a town where one manufacturing plant provided the majority of the jobs, employed the most people, what happened at that plant would play a significant role in the day-to-day lives of our population. Thus it would be important for the premiere local news outlet to keep tabs on what was going on — what’s going well, what’s going ill, any significant changes upcoming, etc. In the same way, we believe at the News + Record, and I believe as a journalist and a person, that having that watchful eye on the school system is critical to my job and to keeping Chatham County going.

But what if Mountaire takes over and becomes the No. 1 employer? Are public schools still important? Yes.

In the 2018-2019 Chatham County government budget, CCS received the most tax dollars of any individual department or fund category with $38,764,090. That’s more than the sheriff’s office ($13,403,696), human services ($17,693,136) and county administration ($23,801,033). Of each tax dollar that you, a Chatham County resident, pays, 38 cents of it went to schools, higher than any other department.

That’s not uncommon. In Lee County, 26.4 percent ($19,894,784) of the county’s $75 million-plus budget went to the public school system for the 2018-2019 year. Wake County put $475.9 million to public schools, nearly 37 percent of its budget. Out on the coast, New Hanover County appropriated around 36 percent of its annual budget for public schools.

So while Chatham County is not unique in allocating quite a bit of money to its public schools, it’s not something that should be overlooked. One of the main goals of news outlets everywhere covering local government should be making sure that your tax dollars are spent wisely and appropriately. If you the people believe they are not, you let them know about it.

Finally, I and we at the News + Record cover the schools so much because it’s about our children. The next generation of Chathamites is in public schools right now. Alongside their brethren in private and charter schools, students from age 3-18 are learning in these taxpayer-funded classrooms from taxpayer-funded teachers. And as of Sept. 10, 2018, the last count taken of all CCS students, there were 8,835 of them.

The latest estimation from the U.S. Census Bureau for Chatham County’s total population was 71,742 for 2017. That means that more than 10 percent of our residents are daily in those schools, learning from those teachers. I don’t think there’s any other singular institution that touches that many young lives on a face-to-face level on a daily basis.

And these individuals are our future. They’re learning math, science, English, history, music, art, athletics, drama, foreign languages and more with the hopes that they’ll be prepared for whatever comes their way.

That’s why I write about the public schools so much. If you’ve noticed, I’ve also tried to include Chatham’s charter schools and other educational institutions like Central Carolina Community College for similar reasons. But public schools, as I hope you’ve seen in the numbers, are critical.

That’s why I’ll write about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s in-between and generally what’s going on. If you have any ideas about future stories or topics, let me know. I’m always happy to learn more.


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