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Taking a stand on public education

By By Lynette Wilson / staff writer
Sept. 30, 2002
Parents for Public Schools will hold a town meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Meridian High School auditorium Tuesday.
Jim McGinnis, a businessman, father of three and chairman of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation educational committee, was instrumental in chartering Meridian's PPS chapter.
McGinnis spoke with The Meridian Star editorial board about the importance of parental involvement in public education and some of the issues affecting public education in Meridian.
The Meridian Star: Why is it important to establish a Parents for Public Schools chapter in Meridian?
Jim McGinnis: Meridian has a mediocre school system. What it comes down to is the educational system itself and lack of public support. Wherever you've got bad schools and poor performing students, you've got parents who aren't involved in the system. PPS is organized to get parents and the community involved in the school system.
The Star: How does it differ from a Parent Teacher Association?
McGinnis: PPS is a politically active group of people whose goal is to work within the school system. PPS will be in constant contact with the school board and the administration, and will have a decision making capacity. PPS is not meant to agitate, but I'm sure there will be issues and times when PPS is more confrontational than the school board.
Initially, though, PPS' intent is to galvanize parent support and to call attention to the fact that our schools are mediocre and try to turn that trend around.
The Star: When you say "politically active," do you think it comes down to getting people who think like you appointed to the school board?
McGinnis: No question. In our district, the school board is appointed by the mayor. When it is time for the mayor to appoint another member, we would like to have some impact in that decision.
The Star: Should the school board be elected?
McGinnis: I don't think you guarantee a better candidate by electing or appointing them. I think elections give the public input, which they might perceive as being a better thing. On the other hand, if you are appointing school board members that are no more qualified than those willing to run, that's not a better situation either.
The Star: How well is the school board doing?
McGinnis: I'm not trying to cast any dispersions on the city or county school boards, but school boards past and present have not been good enough stewards of our districts, for the most part they've been passive.
We haven't had an exceptional school district in a really long time, and that's the board's responsibility. I'm not pointing any fingers because this didn't happen overnight and it's not going to change overnight, but I think the first thing we have to do is be honest with ourselves about where we are Meridian is a mediocre school in a mediocre state and that's just not good enough.
The Star: How many members will PPS need to be effective?
McGinnis: I think to be truly effective district-wide we are going to need about 30-40 parents from each of the 13 schools in our district, around 500 parents. And we are going to need the participation of a good demographic mix of black and white parents.
The Star: What are some of the immediate issues PPS will tackle?
McGinnis: We need to work on graduation rates, lowering the drop out rate, improving our test scores, and we need to make sure the community participates in that. Because the kids in school now are going to be the employees of those of us who employ people in this town. I don't understand the inability to see education as just absolutely critical to Meridian's success. Looking backward, I think our children have gotten the message that education is not important, and as a result, we've had mediocre performance from our students and our school system. We are left with a fairly large block of employees who aren't as good as they should be because they didn't get a good enough education.
The Star: Do you support a single Meridian, Lauderdale County school system?
McGinnis: It makes so much sense it will probably never happen. One school system would come with an $80 million budget and eliminate duplication of services, buses and administrative staff money that could be used on teacher salaries, books, bricks and mortar. You would have to package consolidation and sell it to the public, because the public will fight tooth and nail. No one wants to see their school shutdown.
The Star: What's the connection between good, quality education and what employers are looking for and how it contributes to economic development and attracting industrial prospects?
McGinnis: When you bring prospective industry here, number one they look at the site, obviously, then the look at the community and the public school system.
An educated workforce is important. For the most part, if you bring industry into this town they will mainly hire high-school graduates. Industry leaders want to be assured that high-school graduates are prepared for the workforce.