Strong public schools helping developers sell communities

by Wally Northway

Published: June 9,2008

A solid public school system is a huge factor when communities are vying for new or expanded business and industry. That is common knowledge, but the reasons strong schools can be a deal-sealer, and how important they can be to bringing new jobs and money into a community, may surprise some.

Great public schools are more than just about workforce development, says David Rumbarger, president of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, a city long known for its top-performing schools. He says excellent administrators, teachers and students can quickly change any preconceived negative perceptions a prospect might hold.

“A prospect wants to take a look at your schools usually on the second or third visit,” Rumbarger says. “To be honest, I try to put school tours on the agenda on the first visit, especially if the prospect is from up North where too often there is that negative stereotype — you know, we don’t wear shoes and socks, etc.

“It might take me weeks or months to overcome this bias. A great school with great kids can change the perception of a community in an hour. No, we’re not all dumb hicks. And yes, we wear shoes.”

Border to border

Milton Kuykendall, superintendent of the DeSoto County School District, likes to quote former Gov. William Winter, the “education governor,” when talking about the role of public schools in economic and community development.

“Gov. Winter said the road to success passes by the schoolhouse,” Kuykendall says. “He also said the road to economic development passes by the schoolhouse. And, he is right.”

Kuykendall knows a little about top-achieving schools. His district is arguably the best in the state. Of the 27 schools in the Northwest Mississippi school district, 16 are level five, the Mississippi Department of Education’s highest ranking. All the rest are level four.

While North Mississippi areas such as DeSoto County, Tupelo/Lee County (combined 11 level five schools) and Pontotoc County (four level five schools) are home to top-notch schools, academic excellence can be found statewide. In fact, the opposite end of the state has its own “hotbed” of superior schools.

The Jackson County School District has 10 level five schools, and the districts in Ocean Springs and Pascagoula combined add another 10 level fives. The school districts in Harrison County, Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach and Pass Christian hold a total of 26 level five schools. (All five schools of the Long Beach School District are level five.)

Larry Barnett, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC) said, “A key issue with many industries is the quality of the education system. Harrison County has great state of the art schools. Both core and vocational curriculums are offered.”

Two-way street

Obviously, economic and community developers and the business community as a whole have a vested interest in high-achieving schools. Many industries, particularly construction and manufacturing, are heavily involved in local schools.

The Mississippi Economic Council (MEC), “Mississippi’s chamber of commerce,” the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, Rumbarger’s CDF, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, all of the state’s construction associations and a host of other organizations utilize a variety of avenues to get “plugged into” schools, and, in turn, include local educators in economic and community development efforts.

Kuykendall has high praise for the DeSoto County Economic Development Foundation (DCEDF) and local businesses for their support of his schools. One example he points to is the local “Teacher’s Perk” program. More than 175 local businesses are involved in the program that affords area teachers deep discounts on purchases and other benefits. Kuykendall says a teacher only has to show her contract to local car dealership, and she will be offered a car at invoice price.

The MEC offers scholarships and recognition, a program that CDF now participates in. The CDF also does something many economic and community development organizations have adopted — superintendents sitting on their board. Rumbarger says the superintendents of Tupelo’s and Lee County schools sits on the CDF board.

Kuykendall sits on the DCEDF board. He says that is key to the county’s success in having great schools and growing, bustling communities.

“It gives me a chance to hear what they are doing, the types of businesses that are looking at us,” Kuykendall says. “It keeps me involved, and keeps the other board members involved in the schools. It’s very important.”

The HCDC currently does not have any school superintendents on its board. However, the appointment by various entities to the HCDC board provides an opportunity for school personnel to serve. HCDC sponsors scholarships where appropriate, and serves as a liaison between industry leaders and local schools to discuss workforce issues. And, the HCDC is supporting the University of Southern Mississippi’s efforts to pilot an entrepreneurial program in one of the local high schools.

Kuykendall said, succinctly, “If you can walk down the streets of a community safely, odds are it has strong public schools. Do you want to build more jails, or more schools?”

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

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