By CARL SMITH
As leaders raise questions about the future of county education, local economic developers say the current situation casts doubt over one of the main quality-of-life issues companies examine when relocating.
Weak school systems, they say, create an under-developed workforce, which then limits what kinds of jobs Oktibbeha County can attract.
Last week, District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams both said they are in favor of pursuing a consolidated county school system after questions arose about how Starkville School District will handle transfer requests from Oktibbeha County School District students. The SSD Board of Trustees tabled Trainer’s request to transfer his children into the district Tuesday after OCSD Conservator Jayne Sargent signed off on a release granting such a switch. Sargent has also said she would sign similar releases for any other parent seeking to transfer their child to another school district since OCSD faces accreditation issues following a state takeover.
School Board members declined to vote on the matter saying any “Yes” or “No” decision would set a precedent for future transfer requests, The board is expected to take up the matter again on Dec. 4, but Trainer and other supervisors said they would like to hold meetings with city and county education leaders to address the situation.
On Tuesday, SSD Superintendent Lewis Holloway said he believes OCSD has a better shot to regain accreditation before any mechanisms are in place to deal with any potential transfer issues — costs and Department of Justice-set standards with district demographics — or before a working consolidation plan can be developed.
Trainer and Williams, however, say they believe consolidation will solve future funding issues and could greatly improve educational delivery in the county. Also, Trainer said, solving the county school district’s issues with accreditation will help make the region more attractive to businesses.
“In my opinion, we can take this thing and package it together to develop a model (school system) that can be used as a flagship for the entire state. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation in 2012 because we could have addressed it years ago, and the sooner we address it, the sooner we can move down the road of recovery,” Trainer said Friday. “We have to stop dealing with the symptoms and address the problem itself. Better school systems will produce more-educated youth and a strong workforce.”
While the two supervisors say consolidation could put Oktibbeha County’s educational systems on track for the future, two area economic developers say the county’s situation is a blemish when attracting jobs. Jennifer Gregory, Greater Starkville Development Partnership chief operating officer and vice president for tourism, and Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority President Jack Wallace both agree OCSD’s accreditation situation creates a harder sell when developers attempt to woo businesses to the area.
“When you’re talking about relocating a business, you’re also at the same time talking about any number of people uprooting their families and moving them to a new place,” Gregory said. “To those administrators who are looking to move their businesses and to past selection committees, the quality of public school systems is at the top of the list of quality-of-life factors they look at.”
“It’s very important to get the county schools back on track and also maintain a high level of educational excellence in not only our public schools, but also the academy,” Wallace, a self-described advocate for consolidation, added. “It’s a terrible time to have these issues hanging over us with us looking for industry and jobs.”
Strong county educational systems also produce a skilled workforce, another factor, Gregory said, that is not only critical to successful industrial recruitment, but also dictates what types of businesses an area can attract.
“(Economic development) is all about education. There’s been a change in skill sets demanded over the last 20-30 years where we see fewer and fewer repetitious jobs. Assembly line workers, for example — those jobs are now done by automation. Jobs now demand people who can read, understand what they’re reading and apply it in a work situation,” East Mississippi Community College President Rick Young said. “The need for education is greater now than it’s ever been.”
Young says EMCC educators find themselves teaching more remedial math and communication skills to many students the school receives from across the state. Critical reading and reading application have become essential skills for current job seekers, he said.
“They’ve not received the foundational skills in K-12 settings, and we have to come back and fill in those skills so our students can be successfully trained (through vocational programs) or go on with their education,” he said. “We concentrate on trying to step up and take care of immediate (area job) needs by looking to see what (skill sets) existing employers are hiring.”
In 2009, the GSDP established Project Class, a volunteer tutoring program aimed at improving all struggling Oktibbeha County third graders’ reading and arithmetic skills.
“In my opinion, common sense tells me if a child leaves third grade, he or she must be able to read. It’s essential to develop reading skills, and we’ve got to get parents to understand that there has to be a great amount of support for children at home and also in the school system,” Young said. “If we can have students develop strong reading skills, with the jobs we have in the Golden Triangle, they would no longer have to leave the state. Local companies, they don’t care what race or sex you are. They want to know what you can do.”
No matter how the county attempts to handle its current issues, area leaders agree Oktibbeha County’s economic future hinges on the entire community’s support of education.
“”It’s hard to know what exactly to do to improve education, and it’s definitely something we cannot fix overnight,” Gregory said. “If we are going to succeed, education has to become a priority at the home level, for our teachers and administrators, for the business community and for our elected leaders.”