01/26/07 — Commissioner Jack Best speaks out on school issue

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Commissioner Jack Best speaks out on school issue

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 26, 2007 1:49 PM

Wayne County Commis-sioner Jack Best is not one to sidestep an issue, but these days he is gingerly approaching the topic of the public school system.

Since being named to the Facilities Master Plan Team to address the needs in the county schools, he has toured the schools and attended community as well as committee meetings as part of the ongoing discussion about funding school construction projects.

Last month he attended the N.C. Spin Education Forum in Rocky Mount, sponsored by the chamber of commerce there, where Judge Howard Manning was keynote speaker. It struck a chord with Best.

"This is the reason I ran for county commissioner right here," he said as he popped in a DVD of the speech. "I thought the school system needed some work."

Manning's remarks were targeted at the problems many schools are facing -- specifically students lacking necessary preparation to compete in the job market. The dropout rate as well as the importance of offering vocational training were other concerns mentioned.

"If we don't have a 21st century workforce in the eastern part of this state before too long, we're going to have real problems," Manning said. "Education is the key to getting business into this area of the state."

He cited countries like China, where 40 students in a classroom could be found doing math on a computer screen, with a rapidly growing number of people there speaking English.

"They're going to eat our lunch if we don't wise up and start thinking about education first," he said.

The essentials, the basics, should be providing an equal opportunity education to every child, Manning said. That includes being able to read, write and speak the English language, having a fundamental knowledge of math and physical science, and to be able to function in a rapidly changing society. Whether students go on to college, community college or enter the workforce, every student should be prepared to compete evenly with others.

Best is hesitant to apply Manning's edict to Wayne County.

"I can't talk without getting in trouble with the schools," he said.

"There's no simple answer ... (But) all people have to get back behind this effort."

He says he feels that the school board is trying, but admits messages like Manning's can be discouraging.

"I'm not against the Evergreen Solutions deal," he said, referring to the consulting firm hired by the commissioners, which released a report last year addressing ways to improve the school system. "I just think it's a bigger problem. I don't think the whole problem has been addressed."

Best is not alone in his assessment that all of the solutions are not steeped in bricks and mortar. He is among a growing number who have said that throwing more money at buildings and renovations is not going to solve the issues of low test scores and the quality of education for children in Wayne County.

"I'm the first one to tell you we need to modernize our schools but it's more than modernizing our schools," he said. "Without fixing the problems of our schools, we don't need to spend the money.

"We need to go back, patch them up and fix them up, but we don't need to go build schools if we don't fix the problem."

Rather than seeking ways to fund projects, Best said he would like to see more interest in shoring up programs in the schools. Parents as well as teachers and principals would be well-served to advocate for the students, he said.

"The school system is probably 80, 85 percent in really good shape," he said. "You go to the schools, they're clean, well-maintained."

The glaring needs, he said, are "the kids that don't have a chance. That's the real story. ... Are we going to educate them or are we going to put them in jail or feed them on social welfare?"

If money is going to be raised, he suggested some should go to pay extra teachers, provide additional tutoring for the ones that need it.

"Let's make our county a showcase for the rest of the state and look at our schools as a model," he said.

It has been frustrating at times for the commission and school board to lock horns over financial matters. Building trust between the two groups seems to be a challenge, but Best said he remains hopeful.

"I'm willing, I'll put it that way," he said. "I came to help. I'm here to help."