07/12/09 — Business leaders improve education relations

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Business leaders improve education relations

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 12, 2009 12:25 AM

It has been more than two years since local business and industry leaders decided that they needed do something to lower the escalating and increasing acerbic rhetoric between county commissioners and the Board of Education.

Not only was the rhetoric seen as affecting the quality of education, it was viewed as detrimental to the county's industries and businesses -- the backbone of if its tax base.

Not unexpectedly there was some initial resistance, said Jimmie Edmundson, one of the five original members of the group who spearheaded the fence-mending efforts.

Even with the occasion jabbing comments that are still being made, Edmundson, senior vice president and city executive for BB&T, is convinced those efforts have paid off and that the children and county will reap the benefits.

"The (initial) feedback we received from commissioners was very positive," Edmundson said. "They wanted our involvement. I think the feeling of the school board initially was that we were probably meddling in things that we needed to stay out of.

"I think they realized as time went on that we didn't have any ulterior motive to do this and that we were being sincere and we wanted to get the school board and county commissioners to work together for the betterment of our school system. I personally felt resistance from the school board to begin with it, but it got better after we started meeting."

He added, "Rhetoric had sort of reached a fever pitch and it was going to take something to kind of lower the tensions between the two boards so that you could talk about the issues. I think this gave everybody a chance to do that on an even playing field where there was no one looking to point a finger at anyone.

"I think maybe that was some of the fear to begin with, maybe some even on the county commissioners, but I did not detect that, but on the school board maybe there was fear the only thing we were getting together for was to bash the school board and that was not the case. That was not our intent. All we wanted to do was to address the issues being presented to us and the only way to get those issues addressed was to get those two boards communicating and working together."

There was, he said, no hidden agenda, just a desire to do what was best to educate the county's children.

Feedback to the process in general has been good, he said.

"I think one thing that came out of the meetings is that people have strong personalities expressing their opinions and views," he said. "Getting to know that person, know that their heart is in the right place then you kind of take how they say things in a different light. It is not as offensive to someone when you understand that person."

The decision to intervene was prompted by comments the Economic Development Alliance was hearing from local industry leaders that they were not particularly happy with a lot of the employees they were getting directly out of high school.

"They were telling us there were a lot of reasons that they weren't happy," Edmundson said.

They also were concern ed the conflict would damage the county's economic well-being.

It was decided was that it probably was something that needed to be dealt with outside the Wayne County Development Alliance.

"We felt like this was a big project and it was more than we could take on and it was something that needed to be dealt with outside of that arena," he said. "We got a group of people together and started talking about what they could do. We invited some industry leaders in, just had a kind of roundtable discussion of what the issues were.

"It was kind of mind boggling to think about all of the things we have heard and how do you address them and how can you bring the proper amount of focus to this without it looking like you were meddling where you didn't need to be meddling?"

He added, "Everybody wanted to be positive. No one wanted to beat up anyone so to speak, but what we wanted to do was stop what we called the disagreements between the county commissioners and Board of Education. Obviously when you have two elected boards there are going to be differences of opinion and we understood that, but it seemed like the relationship between the two boards had got to the point that we weren't making any progress.

"We wanted to figure out a way to stop that, bring the two sides together and focus on issues that we could do something about that would make a difference in the lives of school children that would help them get the education that they needed, but also supply our local business and industry with a workforce everybody could be proud of and one that would put us in a good light with other businesses that may be looking to relocate."

When a business or industry looks to relocate or expand they talk, particularly if they are from another community or state, with local industry about the workforce and the business environment, he said.

The county, he said, wanted those industries to have "a good story to tell."

It was recognized that would be a "monumental task," he said.

The group elected five of if members, headed by Edmundson, to pursue those efforts.

Funds were raised and a consulting firm hired to keep the group pointed in the right direction and to provide any needed research. An outside facilitator was hired to facilitate the meetings.

"We just felt like it was important that the meetings stayed focused, stayed on track and that when the meetings were over with that we had some goals that we could agree on and that we could move forward on," Edmundson said. "One thing we understood from day one was that we were never going to make all the things that needed to happen to happen with just the five of us."

With that in mind, the goal was to get to point where the entire community was involved.

The facilitator, a retired school superintendent, understood the problems from both sides with all of the state and federal regulations then the wishes of the county and citizens, Edmundson said.

"I think that after going through the meetings I think all involved had a clearer understanding of the issues and obstacles the schools have to deal with," he said. "Some of them (regulations) honestly don't make any sense and you wonder how anyone could think that these rules are good for education. They are so cumbersome that they are not doing anything for the kids in the classroom."

The group met weekly for several weeks.

County Manager Lee Smith explained the county budget end of the school issue.

There always will be budget questions, Edmundson said.

"The money piece won't ever be out of the forefront, but I think we got to the point where the money issue was not the overriding topic of every meeting," Edmundson said. "But that was not our goal, our goal was to get them talking to each other so they could resolve things."

He said that Smith and county schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor are committed to keeping the lines of communication open.

Another outgrowth of the session was the organization of an education council under the umbrella of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce. Former Wayne Community College President Dr. Ed Wilson is chairman of that group that has several committees looking at different aspects of education such as teacher recruitment and retention.

That has left the original group in an advisory role, Edmundson said.

"With him (Wilson) running it we don't get called on a lot," he said. "He addresses things head on and has a good relationship with Steve and Lee.

"I do think that part of what we set out to do was accomplished, lowering the rhetoric level between the boards. There are always going to be disagreements and there are strong personalities on both sides. This is a big issue and people get passionate about it when they are talking about kids' education and everybody has their opinion. The main thing is that they are talking, they are communicating and Steve and Lee are talking."

The problem in the past was that the two boards were not sitting down across the table from one another, he said.

"Maybe something was said at a school board meeting that was reported in the paper that upset commissioners," Edmundson said. "Then at a commissioners' meeting something was said that upset the school board. Everybody was responding, but they were not sitting down and talking.

"If we accomplished nothing else I think we accomplished that -- I think we were able to bring them together and let them see that everyone's goal was better education for our children and that in order to get that we had to work together as a team."

Edmundson commended local business and industry for being willing to speak up.

"I think that was the driving force that brought this together," he said. "If I go, or you go, to the school board and say this is a problem they say, 'I have not heard that,'" Edmundson said. "Well they are telling the truth they haven't. Even though I had heard from industry leaders, they (school board) had not. It is kind of hard to fault them if they haven't heard it. When the businesses came then they (school board) heard it from the horse's mouth.

"When you have two boards you have got a lot of personalities. In the end, you have got to reach decisions that are going to better educate our kids."