Better Schools Mean Better Business and Better Community

This column by Travis Vencel, chairman of the board, and Christy Gillenwater, president and CEO, of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce appeared as a guest column in The Herald Times on April 12, 2010.

“Better Business. Better Community.” A simple statement that reflects The Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce’s belief that a strong business climate leads to a higher quality of life for everyone.

But as we all know, it takes many components to build a “better community.” That is why, through The Chamber’s Franklin Initiative, we work daily in our schools to make a difference in young lives, with particular attention paid to at-risk youth. This is a focus area for The Chamber because we also believe that better education creates better business and a better community.

Right now, our community is facing significant obstacles. Both Richland-Bean Blossom and Monroe County Community school corporations are forced to make drastic cuts to already underfunded budgets. The Chamber is deeply concerned about the potential effects these cuts could have on our education systems, the children they serve and our community as a whole.

As a community, we face the loss of talented educators, an increase in the student/teacher ratio, the potential for students to become less engaged, and the potential for lower graduation rates. Our alternative schools face an uncertain fate. These potential effects have damaging social and economic implications. Statistics show the average dropout earns $260,000 less over a lifetime and contributes $60,000 less in taxes than a high school graduate. It is also estimated that a high school dropout requires as much as $500,000 in public assistance, health care and incarceration costs over their lifetime.

The Chamber’s Franklin Initiative, with generous financial support from AT&T, employs three “graduation coaches” who work in local high schools to help at-risk students stay on track and graduate. In addition, the real-world learning opportunities we offer through Reality Stores, Speaker’s Bureau, Career and Employment Fairs, and Workforce Readiness Certification make education relevant and help prepare youths for life after high school. This year, the graduation coaches and other community partners are implementing “Check & Connect,” a nationally-recognized research-based model designed to promote students’ engagement with school, reduce dropouts and increase school completion.

Our school systems are critical economic drivers, and we encourage the development of additional public and private education partnerships. Because the business community relies on an educated and qualified pool of potential employees, we need strong schools to prepare students to pursue higher education or enter the workforce. A high quality K-12 system is instrumental in attracting 21st century jobs and ensuring the retention of a qualified workforce and their families. For this and many other reasons, the quality of our public schools has a direct impact on the economic vitality of our region.

In this tough economic climate, businesses have faced many challenges and difficult decisions. We understand that the decisions schools are forced to make do not come easily. Moving forward, we must work together to find community solutions for this community problem. Indications point to a referendum to help fill the budget gap. If the school administrations and the community choose this route, it is important to seek out community partners to develop a clear message. All stakeholders must have a good understanding of the funds needed and the manner in which they will be spent. Because most Monroe County voters do not have school-aged children, collaboration will be required to educate the community on issues such as ongoing budget constraints and the social and economic impacts on the overall quality of life for everyone. The Chamber offers support and guidance throughout this process to the school administrators, business and the greater Bloomington community.

Finally, we know that our community is not alone in this situation. School systems across the country are facing funding crises. It is not the time to place blame for our situation, but a time to come together to seek innovative solutions. This will not be a quick process, but rather a community dialogue that we hope will result in solutions that protect the quality of K-12 education as well as the economic viability of our region. The greater Bloomington community has long placed great importance on education, and as we move forward as a community, The Chamber hopes to have an active role in the decision-making process.