March 12, 2014 10:33:20 AM
Tuesday, a week after Columbus mayor Robert Smith was the guest speaker at the Columbus Rotary Club, a Rotarian asked the guest speaker how he could exert his influence on the Columbus Municipal School Board in an effort to reverse recent decline.
This week's speaker was not the mayor, however. It was Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins.
"Why do you ask me the questions you ask me?" Higgins half-joked as he negotiated the fine line between plain talk and diplomacy. "Look. There is a school board. There is a mayor. Last week, the mayor was here, right? Why didn't you ask him? When he said the schools had a D rating and he hoped for a C, nobody said a word. I know because I was here, too.
"So let me ask a question: 'What are you doing?'"
Higgins went on to talk about how schools factor into economic development.
In recruiting industry to an area, the quality of the schools is a factor of great importance.
"There are a few places that are winning because of their schools and a few places that are losing because of school stuff," Higgins said. "We haven't lost anything because of schools so far. But that day is coming unless something changes. This is serious stuff."
For three years now, the Columbus Municipal School District has been rated as under-performing by the Mississippi Department of Education. The district is looking for its third superintendent in as many years and over the past year, the district has been divided along racial lines over the departure of superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell, who was forced from her position in June after allegations of misappropriation of district funds and a scandal involving the district's catering provider.
It remains to be seen what Greg Lewis' arrival on the school board next week will mean. We hope not a renewed power struggle, a struggle that will only impede the district's long, hard journey back to respectability.
Clearly, the future of Columbus and, to some degree the prospects for the county and the entire Golden Triangle, are closely tied to what happens in the school district. If the city, county and region are going to continue to attract industry and the good-paying jobs that go with it, the city's schools must emerge from its current mediocrity. Even those whose children attend private schools or residents who no longer have children in the district, have a stake in the matter.
Given the gravity of the situation, next week's school board meeting should be packed to overflowing. Yet we fear that most citizens will abdicate their civic responsibility to attend this meeting and hold the board accountable for its actions. The same 15 to 20 people will show up and the board will never feel the burden of being held accountable by an entire city full of people, who appear to be strangely indifferent to a situation that threatens to undermine the community's future.
Higgins' question is right on the mark:
What are you going to do about it?
The Columbus School board meets Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Brandon Central Services.
We'll have the answer to that question then.