December 9, 2013 8:43:00 AM
Other than appointing officials to the school board, Columbus councilmen are limited when it comes to what they can legally do to facilitate improvement in the school district.
If they implement an idea brought up at their retreat last week, however, councilmen will be speaking to school board members more regularly.
Councilman Bill Gavin suggested having either the board or its president report to the council on a quarterly basis. The purpose: To see how school board members are working to help raise the city school district's test scores and overall grade handed down each year by the Mississippi Department of Education.
The state gave the district a D for the 2012-2013 school year. The city would like for that score to be at least a C in three years.
Gavin, a three-decade-plus educator currently at East Mississippi Community College, said the requirement would send a message to the board that improvement is a must.
"I know we can't go messing with the school board, but we need to make it very imperative to them that that's our goal and should be their goal," Gavin said. "While we can't go tell them what to do...we do appoint the school board (members). I've been in education for 36 years and I can tell you economic development, quality of life...is tied to education."
Phil Hardwick of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute facilitated last week's council retreat. He added to the discussion that he was involved with Mississippi Association of Partners in Education, an organization with "tons of success stories" of entities including city councils getting involved with their schools to make tangible improvements.
"The best economic development project is good public schools," Hardwick said. "If a city had such good public schools that there was a waiting list for people to get in those public schools, you'd have to beat people away from your town."
Gavin said he believed one reason the school system earned a second consecutive D from MDE and was on academic watch for the third year in a row may have been because there was a lack of communication between city and school leaders.
"We've been going down this same old road for years," he said. "It's time now that the school board report to us and be accountable for what they're doing. If you don't force somebody to be accountable, they're not going to do it. We can have a good school system, but it takes discipline from the entire community and community input to be able to do that."
The school district's Quality Distribution Index Score in the latest MDE report in September was 141 out of a possible 300 points. The QDI represents an overall measure of student performance on statewide assessments.
The goal was one of several that councilmen and department heads came up with and organized last week during a day-long strategic planning session. Hardwick said he believed Columbus officials were on the right track and will monitor their progress throughout the current council and mayor's term until it ends in 2017.
"This business of writing down things: Big deal," Hardwick said. "People who write goals and share them with others and then are held accountable and responsible, it makes all the difference in the world."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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