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SCORE Conference Accents Connection Between Education, Economic Growth

They held an education summit in Nashville on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it turned into a jobs summit.

And that’s pretty much what organizers of the event had in mind all along.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, the organization founded by former Sen. Bill Frist, hosted the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit at Lipscomb University, pulling together various interests in education — from the classroom to the philanthropic realm. It was notable for its emphasis on rural areas, where issues ranging from education to unemployment can be difficult and complex

But it was clear the event was not simply about educating kids in rural communities. It was about preparing them for the workforce and, in turn, boosting the economy in those rural areas.

“It’s making real this close connection between education and jobs,” said Jamie Woodson, the former state senator and president of SCORE.

“They’re so interrelated. It’s not just something we talk about theoretically. It really is a matter of economic viability for these communities around our state and the families that support those communities.”

To drive home that point, the event had a high-powered panel discussion Tuesday morning that included Kevin Huffman, the state’s commissioner of education, and Bill Hagerty, the state’s commissioner of economic and community development, along with Frist and Woodson. Huffman said the jobs of the future will be different from jobs in the past. Hagerty said the connection between jobs and education is very tight.

But the same angle was evident in a morning panel discussion Wednesday. Joe Barker, executive director of the Southwest Tennessee Development District, drove home the point of workforce development and in the process referred to a megasite in West Tennessee aimed at economic development.

Barker also referred to the REDI College Access Program. REDI stands for Regional Economic Development Initiative.

“The key part of this is to recognize we’re an economic development organization. We’re not an educational entity,” Barker said.

“We got involved in the College Access Program purely from an economic development sense.”

He spelled out some details of the large tract of land set aside as the Haywood County Megasite.

“It is a large, potentially very attractive industrial site for heavy manufacturing. It is the only certified megasite left in the state of Tennessee,” Barker said.

“Leaders came together to talk about what we could do as a region to enhance attracting jobs to that megasite, and at the end of the day it all went back to the quality of our workforce and our educational attainment levels.”

John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the largest higher education organization in the state, zeroed in on the high number of students who require some type of remedial education when they enter the state’s colleges. He focused on the community colleges in the Board of Regents system since they will be the institutions dealing most with remedial education.

“Roughly four out of five freshmen who come to our community colleges require some kind of remedial or developmental education,” Morgan said. “Of those, about three out of four will have math deficiencies.

“That’s kind of the big problem. But even when you look at reading, about one-third end up in developmental or remedial reading courses, and about half end up in writing courses. That’s troubling.”

Morgan pointed to the state’s Complete College Act, which is geared toward moving students more seamlessly toward college degrees.

“In an environment where completion is now the agenda, where our schools are incented in a very strong way through our outcome-based formula to focus on completion, obviously that represents a substantial challenge,” Morgan said.

Morgan said no matter how well Tennessee handles remedial education, real success will come only when students arrive at college prepared to learn.

“We can cry about that. We can whine about the lack of preparation if we choose to,” Morgan said. “But that’s not going to help us hit our numbers. It’s not going to help us achieve our outcomes.

“So what we have to do is figure out how we at our institutions can work with our high schools, with our middle schools, with our communities to lead to better success for students as they come to us.”

Morgan said there will always be a need for remedial and developmental courses for adult learners, pointing out that if he were to go back to college he would probably “test in” to needing some kind of help.

But the summit was still somewhat out of the ordinary for its focus on rural communities.

“There is a great deal of focus and data related to urban turnaround strategies,” Woodson said. “But we wanted to look at rural communities — and a third of Tennessee students are in schools in rural communities — which is particularly important. So we thought it would be smart and productive to focus on that.”

David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for SCORE, echoed that desire.

“A lot of the education reform going on nationally is focused on urban areas,” he said. “In talking to folks and learning from people across the state, there was a real need, not only convening about rural education but to talk about best practices, then bring folks together to replicate those practices.”

Woodson said the idea for the rural summit came from listening tours SCORE has conducted across the state, adding that those efforts will continue.

“This really resulted from those conversations,” she said.

Political Movement on Megasite

Gov. Bill Haslam presided over the first meeting of the governing body of the Haywood County megasite Monday in Jackson, but it was Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey who offered the most pointed advice to the new board.

He spoke from experience.

“You will have a lot of highs and lows,” said Ramsey, who was Hamilton County mayor as Chattanooga pursued the Volkswagen plant that ultimately brought a $1 billion investment to the megasite there.

“This is a very patient process that a lot of people will be impatient about. It’s hard work. There will be times people will say that nothing is happening. I’ve been called a lot of funny names. There will be those days when it’s a little bit slow.”

But the message was perseverance, and Ramsey encouraged West Tennessee leaders to weather the down times as the site seeks a client like Volkswagen or Hemlock Semiconductor, which made its own $1 billion investment at a megasite in Montgomery County and has already announced a substantial additional investment there.

After the meeting, Ramsey visited the Haywood County site, accompanied by Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, and Rep. Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, as well as other officials working on the project. The group included Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith, whom the board elected chairman at its meeting on Monday. Haslam did not visit the site Monday but has been to the location on more than one occasion.

Haywood County is the last of the state’s three TVA megasites, designed to attract major business relocations, an issue that not only plays a role in the state’s economic future but has become a political football in its own right.

Haslam recently announced that the state will move away from the emphasis on attracting huge business re-locations and concentrate on feeding the growth of existing businesses in the state. But Haslam told board members Monday that the significance of the West Tennessee site has not diminished.

“I can assure you there are few things we care as much about as the proper development of the megasite,” Haslam told the group at a conference room at the McKeller-Sipes Airport in Jackson.

“I said back when I was campaigning, and I’ll say it again now, I think it is one of the best assets we have for the state when we look at economic development. We do not have a lot of pieces of property like this that are available.”

The site sits near Stanton, north of exit 42 on Interstate 40. At this point, the project remains only a conceptual plan. The site was originally certified to meet the potential needs of an automotive manufacturer. There is no indication that an auto maker will move into the site, but state officials hope a business will locate there that can attract numerous suppliers, as an automotive manufacturer would.

“We’re not pinning all of our hopes for job development on the megasite. We have some prospects right now in this part of the state we’re working hard to hopefully bring here,” Haslam said after the meeting. “But this is a great long-term project.”

Board members were briefed on where progress on the site stands now. It is in a vastly rural area, which creates challenges for infrastructure. Authorities told the board Monday the location would need 3 million gallons of water a day and that three wells are being dug into the Memphis aquifer to meet that need. Each well would draw 1.5 million gallons, and the board was given assurances Monday the amount of water would be adequate to meet the need. Waste water services will also be necessary.

The site will need a water treatment system, which will be on the property, and Highway 222, which runs through the middle of the site, will need to be re-routed. The board was told that while no specific funds were put into the budget just passed by the Legislature that flexibility is in place to make funding available if a client is found for the site. The state already has $34.7 million set aside in the Department of Economic Development for use on the Haywood County project.

The site includes 3,800 acres, with the core site comprised of 1,700 acres.

Democrats had criticized Haslam and other Republicans during the legislative session that ended Saturday for not putting more funds into the megasite at a time when the state is desperate for jobs. Several lawmakers from West Tennessee, including Democrats from the House and Senate, attended the meeting Monday in Jackson. But there seemed to be agreement and optimism among lawmakers from both parties that the project is on the right track.

Nevertheless, it still figures to be at least two years before a big business could be up and running at the site, the board was told Monday.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, had been critical of Haslam’s lack of attention to the megasite in his budget earlier this year. But all three attended the board meeting Monday and appeared upbeat about the project.

Smith’s selection as chairman was noteworthy in that he has been an integral player in seeking support for the megasite and made a campaign ad for Haslam in last year’s gubernatorial race, although Smith is a Democrat.

“We’ve been patient. I’ve been working on this almost seven years,” Smith said after the board meeting in Jackson. “Patience is something we’ve got.

“What people need to understand is this is a state project. There is statewide support for this project. I want folks to understand this is not a Haywood County project. It will benefit everybody in West Tennessee.”

Haywood Co. Running $1.4M Deficit

Haywood County is bleeding red ink to the tune of more than $1.4 million in its solid waste disposal fund at the end of the last fiscal year, after state auditors adjusted the books to reflect the almost $1.8 million it will cost to close the county’s landfill and monitor it for three decades.

The issue of landfill costs is one facing Jefferson, Hardeman and Cumberland counties.

Auditors with the state comptroller’s office also found that Haywood County officials’ spending had exceeded appropriations in the Civil Defense and Parks and Fair Boards funds, the latter by almost $28,000.

Auditors had to correct various general ledger balances and criticized the county for not moving on a prior recommendation to train a staff member in the proper preparation of financial statements. Both problems had been reported for three or more years, auditors said, suggesting the county “is either unwilling or unable to address the deficiencies.”

The county also did not have a system for accounting for road materials on certain projects, auditors noted.

TNReport follows and reports on newsworthy audits of local and state government. Here’s a sampling of our recent items:

Missing Cash Leads to Charges of Theft Against Morgan County Clerk, Feb. 15

County’s Finance Standards Faulted, Feb. 15

Troubles in East Ridge, Feb. 11

Jefferson Co. Busts Budgets By $70K, Feb. 10

Hardeman County Trash Fund $1.7M in the Red; Money Stolen from Commissary, Feb. 9

Fentress Forgeries, Feb. 2