07/09/08 — School and county officials discuss plans

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School and county officials discuss plans

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 9, 2008 1:48 PM

Improving the quality of education in Wayne County will take everyone coming to the table, officials said Tuesday.

Even if it means spreading out a checkered tablecloth and offering a snack for the discussion.

At the joint meeting of the Board of Education and county commission, the discussion of funding and facilities also included comments from the business community and a school system that has blended parents' voices into the mix.

The commission recently approved a budget affording the school system a K-2 summer school program that began July 1, purchasing a second Wee Wings pre-K bus and taking additional security measures in the schools. Facility plans and Phase II of a performance contract are also progressing.

Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor called it "one of the best years we have had."

"Working with the commissioners, working with the community, I think we're making some positive moves in the right direction," he said.

Of course, fuel costs are making a dent in some of that, he noted. Officials are keeping an eye on the situation and considering options for the coming year.

As for the many conversations about school construction, though, Taylor said he believes much has been accomplished over the past year and the school system has "sort of turned the corner."

Five major projects are currently being coordinated -- Eastern Wayne and Greenwood middle schools; Norwayne Middle; and Brogden Primary and Mount Olive Middle School.

A smattering of other schools in the county will also receive upgrades to lighting and heating as part of a performance contract expected to save energy and money.

Now, it's time to bring others into the conversation, said Thelma Smith, school board chairwoman, referencing business leaders who have expressed an interest, as well as the public.

"I think we all realize there has been communication. We all are doing our part," she said. "What we weren't doing was connecting."

Joint meetings between the commission and school board are fine, she noted, but lacking.

"We found out it was very good. We're building relationships here," she said. "The communication process has got to continue."

Jimmie Edmundson, representing a group of business leaders, said their awareness and appreciation of the school system has been heightened since meetings began in October 2006.

Initially, he said, concerns centered around employment and the quality of education. One survey, he said, showed that the quality of education won out over facilities.

"Almost 57 percent of the 400 people who were polled said they would oppose a $90 million bond referendum," he said. Not that facilities are not important, he noted, but certainly not as important as providing employable skills and a quality education.

Lengthy meetings have taught the leaders a thing or two, particularly when it comes to a greater understanding of the county's finances and issues faced by the school board and teachers, Edmundson said.

"I think it opened our eyes as to what the schools are dealing with," he said.

The situation is also not unique to Wayne County, he said, or the state.

"Our problems here are no different from any other county. This is something we all need to be working on," he said. "These issues did not occur overnight. These trends have been taking place over a long period of time."

But the trend can be reversed, said Edmundson. Work groups are currently being formed in several areas -- workplace preparedness and graduation rates; teacher recruitment and retention; public perception the school system; and board communication -- with hopes that leaders and community advocates, as well as the public, will participate.

Mrs. Smith said the effort is in line with plans the school board is considering.

"I think we're all going in the same direction with this," she said. "It does take the entire community. Education is everybody's business."

With that, she introduced a fellow school board chairwoman who has witnessed similar scenarios in Durham County.

Minnie Forte-Brown was recently elected to her third term leading the school board for Durham Public Schools.

"We're coming out of a divisive period," she explained. "Our public demanded that they have a more positive view of public education."

A series of public meetings were created as a way for the community to invest as well as be part of the solution, she said.

The "kitchen table conversations," she said, turned out to be a "great recipe for getting parents and community members engaged in constructive conversation."

She led the capacity crowd in a simulated exercise. The audience, seated around small tables, were given tablecloths and a packet of information to spur individual discussions.

The takeaway message, she said, is to create a healthy discussion.

"It's not a free-for-all, not a gripe session, but a chance to come up with solutions and ideas," she said. And it can be open to everyone -- parents, students, staff members, community supporters, elected officials.

"Choose those topics that people really want to discuss," Ms. Forte-Brown said. "This is a solutions-based conversation. ... Everybody comes with passion but we're all coming to find a solution for what we see as the issue."

Mrs. Smith said she believes Wayne County can benefit from the model.

At an abbreviated school board meeting following the session, she polled others on her board. Most favored the idea.

"We know that it's time," said board member Rick Pridgen. "I think it's very good that the people would be allowed to interject their thoughts into the process and I will be perfectly willing to give it a try."

Board members Shirley Sims and George Moye had previously seen the presentation. Ms. Sims said she was even more impressed the second time, seeing a "greater need" to do it in Wayne County.

Board members Pete Gurley and John P. Grantham were more reticent.

"I think it's something, certainly, there couldn't be any harm having it," said Gurley, noting the importance of learning the concerns around the county.

Grantham said he wouldn't be opposed, either, but is wary.

"I have been to several over the last several years," he explained. "We're not getting a lot of new ideas. Everybody seems to know what needs to be done."

Grantham said he was not being negative, but would like to see action taken rather than just more discussion.

"I think the general idea is that everybody would feel they have some input and that they're sharing in that," Mrs. Smith said. "Because we don't know everything. Sometimes there might be a person out there who's never even been to college but might have a suggestion on how to motivate a child to learn.

"Those are the ideas that we're trying to bring forth."