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Public schools’ importance in economic development growing

It is certainly not a new concept, but one that is taking on more and more importance: the performance of an area’s public schools is key to successful economic development efforts.

With ever-increasing competition in recruiting new business and industry, growing use of technology in the workplace and other factors, economic developers around the state said the quality of public education in their communities has risen from a significant factor to a crucial one.

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Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County (EDA), said economic developers and public officials have always talked about how strong public education is important to successful economic development activities. “To be honest, it used to be just talk, but it is much more than talk now,” he added. “A lot of people, not just businesses, but those looking to relocate to the area, even retirees who won’t even use the public school system, ask about our schools.”

The Jones County school system has seven schools that are level five, the highest rating from the Mississippi Department of Education, and the City of Laurel has one. This is a great asset for the EDA. Stennett said the last four or five prospects that looked at the area all asked about the area’s public schools.

The EDA and the entire community is gearing up for the groundbreaking for three new performing arts centers at three area schools scheduled for June 14. The construction will be funded by a $28-million bond issue that was recently passed by a 90% margin, providing money for improvements at every single school in the area. And, Stennett said he and his team are touting the overwhelmingly successful passage of the bond issue to prospects as evidence of his community’s commitment to strong schools.

Greg Cooper, executive director of the Attala County Industrial Development Corporation, echoed Stennett’s words. “It plays a huge role,” he said. “Having four (Kosciusko) city schools rated at level five is extremely important. And, yes, prospects ask.” Cooper added, “With the increasing use of technology in the workplace, prospects are more and more focused on education.”

For Lee McMinn, the role public schools play in his work is doubly important. Not only is he president of the Yalobusha Economic Development Foundation, he is also a real estate agent. So, he gets questions about the quality of the area schools no matter what hat he is wearing.

“I would call having our two level five schools in Water Valley critical to us,” he said. “It is one of our shining stars. We may only have one grocery store, but we have two great schools, and that is huge, especially for an area like ours that has been economically depressed for so long.

“When we have people or businesses looking at our area, usually the first thing that draws their interest is our prices. It’s much more affordable to live here than, say, Oxford. After that, they want to know about our schools. So, once again, having top-flight schools is critical.”

School conference

With the growing importance of public education in economic development, it is obviously a plus if the schools and public officials and economic developers maintain an open dialogue. And, many communities are doing just that.

Stennett said his organization has begun to collaborate with the area’s K-12 folks on a regular basis. He said the EDA meets with educators monthly just to stay informed and to keep the schools abreast of economic development efforts in Jones County.

Cooper said Attala County is looking to do the same thing. At press time, the county was setting up formal communication between city and county leaders and local educators.

In Rankin County, the economic development community has been collaborating with local schools for years, according to Tom Troxler, executive director of Rankin First Economic Development Authority. “You have to work hand-in-hand for true progress in economic development,” he said. “Every prospect is different, but education is at or near the top of their list of questions. Education is one of our bragging points.”

Troxler added that the relationship between his organization and local schools is a win-win. While top-flight schools are a plus for Rankin First, he said the local schools are all too aware that recruiting business and industry to the area increases local coffers, and some of that money, in turn, is funneled back to the schools.

As of late, the education community has taken more of an active role to ensure it is doing its part in strengthening local and state economies. State Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds has launched an initiative aimed at better preparing Mississippi’s school children for the business world. The Mississippi Department of Education is working closely with such groups as the Mississippi Economic Council and Mississippi Manufacturers Association to that end, and has drawn praise from business as well as public officials, including Gov. Haley Barbour.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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