March 5, 2014 11:36:41 AM
February was a big month for me.
On Feb. 3, I became a grandfather. Lily Elaine Smith weighed just four-pounds, four-ounces. She came three weeks early. If she were a fish, we probably would have released her. On the other hand, any female who makes a practice of being early for anything is definitely a keeper.
On Feb. 28, I closed on a house near downtown Columbus after renting a house in the county since coming to The Dispatch in May 2012. The way I see it, if somebody wanted to run me out of town, they had 21 months to do it. You're stuck with me now.
I had planned to use the third bedroom in my new residence for an office, but it is looking more and more as though I may have need of a nursery. For reasons I won't get into, it appears as though little Lily may become a permanent member of my household. Of course, I won't be the first grandparent to raise a child, but it's still a bit overwhelming to think of it now. I survived the Barney and Pokemon years when my two children were little. I can only imagine what fresh new hell of a children's obsession awaits me with Lily.
That's a little about my personal life and far more than a reader is likely to want to know.
I mention these things only because as I sat at Tuesday's meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club, it dawned on me that I really have skin in the game now.
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith and the city planner Christina Berry were the speakers. Together, the gave the Rotarians an update on the city, mainly budget figures and updates on city projects and its plans for the future.
I thought maybe someone would ask the mayor a probing question that would lend itself to commentary.
Silly me. The Rotarians are, above all else, polite. I swear, if Hitler were the guest speaker, the only question he would have to field would be about his German shepherds.
Still, there were a couple of moments during the luncheon that piqued my interest, given my new circumstances.
First, the mayor mentioned the struggle of the Columbus schools. He said the district has had a "D" rating for the past two years (it has been rated as under-performing for the past three years). He said he hopes this year the city schools would improve to a "C "rating. That probably doesn't sound very ambitious, but considering the current state of our schools, A "C" would be a huge achievement.
The other item of interest was the state of the city's housing. Berry outlined the city's plans for a redevelopment authority, which would aid the city in converting 800 properties identified as dilapidated to viable homes. She noted that there hasn't been any new housing developments in the city for years now, mainly because the demand wasn't there. When you consider all the new industry that has arrived in the area over the past 10 years, with more on the way next door in Clay County, you wonder why there isn't a greater demand.
Converting those blighted properties into affordable housing -- not low-income houses, Berry stressed -- may help.
Then someone, in what is the closest thing you to a tough question you will ever hear at Rotary, asked if the city's poor schools had something to do with the city's inability to attract new residents. Yes, Berry said, good schools are always a priority when people consider where they buy homes.
Well, here I am, right in the middle of it all. I will soon live downtown and will someday be trusting my granddaughter to the care of the city schools for her education.
If you live anywhere downtown, you can chunk a rock and hit a run-down house. You don't need a strong arm to do it, either.
And if you have a child in school in Columbus, you wonder what kind of education that child will receive.
At the next school board meeting, Greg Lewis will replace Aubra Turner on the board, a move that could change the dynamic of the board and how it operates. The current board has done much to help lift the district out of a horrible situation and get the district on stable ground. It did so against the backdrop of a deeply-divisive battle for power drawn along racial lines.
I am legitimately worried that Lewis' arrival will send the board back into the chaos that reigned during Currie Fisher's brief tenure as board president. I would not be at all surprised if Fisher is returned to the president post during the March 18th meeting, which I fear would be an absolute disaster. Watch Lewis, the mayor's hand-picked choice on the board. His actions will tell you all you need to know.
After three years of under-performing, the district can ill-afford to fight old personal battles at the expense of progress. Even in the most harmonious of conditions, it figures to be a long, hard climb.
Clearly, there are few things that have more impact on a city than the status of its schools. If the schools succeed, a city stands a good chance of succeeding. If the schools fail that chance disappears.
As a downtown resident who will likely be sending a child to a city school, I'm about as invested as a person can be.
So I'll be at the March 18th school board meeting to bear witness.
I owe to little Lily, I figure.
If you care about the city's future or the future of your own "Lily," please join me there.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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