02/10/08 — Business leaders put an end to silence over schools

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Business leaders put an end to silence over schools

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 10, 2008 2:06 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on the school facilities funding debate. The final installment -- a wrapup from the commissioners about the future of the funding question and the meetings between the county and the school board -- will appear Wednesday.

After more than a year of meeting together to discuss and examine the challenges facing the local workforce, Wayne County's business and industry leaders realized in October that their efforts could go no further unless the county Board of Commissioners and Board of Education were able to come to an agreement on how best to improve the public school system.

And so they brought the elected officials into the process, beginning a series of closed-door meetings between the business community, three commissioners and three school board members -- one below the number required by each board for a quorum and therefore an open public meeting.

Representing the commission were then-Chairman John Bell, Commissioner Jack Best and Commissioner Andy Anderson. Representing the school board were Thelma Smith, George Moye and John Grantham.

Also present were school and county personnel.

Jimmie Edmundson, senior vice president and city executive for BB&T, explained that the decision to bring the two boards together privately was made to minimize the number of public distractions and to encourage the two sides to sit down, hash out their differences and talk openly.

"What we didn't want was for it to appear we were pointing fingers. It was not an attempt to place blame. It was more of an attempt to figure out what the business community could do to help," he said. "We just wanted to sit everybody down, and quite honestly, we didn't know how things were going to turn out.

"But I think everybody has been very pleased. It's been very positive in the meetings, and we've made a lot of progress over the last few months."

He emphasized that the meetings were not any sort of power grab by the business community, or an attempt to exert undue influence on the elected officials.

"We clearly recognize we have no authority whatsoever," said Wes Seegars, president of Seegars Fence Co. "All we have done is try to be the catalyst to bring the two sides together. That's our entire agenda, because at the end of the day, we don't have a choice. We've got to make this thing work. We want what's best for everybody in this county."

$23 million plan

It was, though, at least in part, through their efforts that the school board and the commissioners were able to come together on a $23 million Phase 1 facility plan -- a proposal that was presented by County Manager Lee Smith to the closed-door group before it was made public late last year.

"We (the business leaders) supported the plan. We thought it was a good plan," Edmundson said. "It deals with the critical needs the school board has identified."

Included in it are major renovations at Norwayne Middle, Eastern Wayne Middle, Greenwood Middle, Mount Olive Middle and Brogden Primary, and minor improvements at Mount Olive Middle, Carver Heights Elementary, School Street Elementary, Dillard Middle, Goldsboro High and C.B. Aycock High.

Even the lack of unanimity on the school board and the concerns that were voiced about the funding schedule weren't enough to dissuade the business leaders' support.

"It was a 13-1 vote in favor of that program, and I think any of us would take that," Edmundson said.

Public opinion

But, the leaders of the business group -- Edmundson, Seegar, Franklin Baking Co. President Tom Buffkin, McMillen Real Estate Group broker and owner Judith McMillen and Mt. Olive Pickle Co. President Bill Bryan said -- that $23 million plan is just a first step.

The next, they said, will be to not only continue work on the facilities, but also to address other needs in the school system, including the recruitment and retention of teachers, test scores, graduation/dropout rates and academic programs.

Helping them come to the conclusion that both areas -- facilities and academics -- need to be addressed, they explained, were the results of a community survey they commissioned.

Polling a representative sample of 400 county residents, the survey found that jobs and education ranked as the community's top two concerns.

It also found that 67 percent felt that the quality of education should be the school board's highest priority, compared to 29 percent favoring facilities. A similar question, one asking which would have "the more positive impact on the local community," found 78 percent of respondents in favor of preparing students for college or the workplace, while 14 percent were in favor of facilities.

"I was not surprised that there was a wide margin, but I was a little surprised at how wide the margin was," Edmundson said.

By that same token, when people were asked if they would support a $90 million bond referendum to build four new schools and renovate 13 others, 47 percent were opposed, while 42 percent said they would support it.

But the survey also found that if the school district made "real measurable improvements in the quality of education," then 77 percent would be more likely to support a bond referendum.

However, the businessmen emphasized that the 8-month-old survey was not meant to be used to sway the actions of either board -- that it was primarily to help them understand public opinion.

"Our purpose was not to say we're not going to support a bond referendum. Our purpose was to find out what the public wants. We all know that whether the public says they think education outcomes are more important than facilities, the truth is, eventually we must address the facility needs," Edmundson said. "These responses helped us to focus on what changes need to be made over time so that the community will at some point stand together to support some financing plan."

The next step

Now the challenge is to figure how to take that next step and deal with the remaining facility needs, as well as the academic programs.

"We recognize there are facility needs that we have to deal with, and we think this ($23 million plan) is a good first step," Edmundson said. "We also know there are other (facility) needs that are going to have to be addressed at some point in time."

But, he added, it's their opinion that academic programs need to come first.

"We want that to be addressed before the other facility needs are addressed," Bryan said. "What we've been supporting is a balanced, comprehensive plan that addresses academic performance, workforce preparation and facilities. We think you've got to look at all aspects of it."

But, the group continued, they are not going to tell the school board what improvements it needs to make.

"The school board has its plate full. We've learned that there are tough issues for the school board to deal with," Edmundson said. "But we want test scores to improve. We want the dropout rate to go down. We want students to graduate with their diplomas and employable skills. And the school board wants the same thing."

They do have some ideas of their own, though, such as mentoring programs, apprenticeship programs and local job fairs.

"We want the community to know this is not going to be a short-term project. We understand the need for the business community to be involved in these efforts," Buffkin said. "This is a community problem."

And even company presidents, Seegars said, need to be hands-on involved.

"I've already told (my employees) that we're going to do this," he said. "This is for all of us. This is for every business."

The goal, they explained, is to show students that not only do people in this community care about them, but that there are jobs and opportunities available to them in Wayne County.

"If they can make that connection to a real world business, they can see there is hope for them to have a meaningful job," Seegars said. "The problem is, we're losing a lot of good young people because they don't perceive or understand the kinds of jobs and economic opportunities we have in the local community."

They also would like to see more vocational programs be offered at the high school and community college levels.

"We feel it's important to educate students that you don't have to go to college. Not every student will go to college," Edmundson said. "But there are skills they can learn that will make good money, and in some cases, more money than they would with a four-year degree."

To cultivate those good students, though, the school system also must recruit and retain good teachers -- another area where the business community feels it can offer some help through such methods as housing incentive programs.

"We came up with a whole lot of things we can do to help," Ms. McMillen said. "I see it as an investment."

But, Edmundson continued, the most important thing now is to continue the forward momentum.

"A lot of this is going to be up to the county and what it can afford. But we think it's real important for us to start getting these (programs) implemented quickly," he said. "We're going to continue to meet. There's still a lot of work to be done."