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Are we hoping failing schools won’t hurt us?

Photo illustration by Ben Hillyer
Photo illustration by Ben Hillyer

NATCHEZ — Moving his family to Natchez from Tampa has proved more difficult for Lance Bishop than he anticipated.

Taking a job as the information technology director for the county government last year, Bishop moved from a top-rated school district — Florida’s 5A rating — to Natchez, where the Natchez-Adams County School District was given an “F” rating this year.

“The school systems in Tampa have so much more money and perform so much better, and then to move here, it was very hard — and it is still very hard — to try to compensate,” he said.

“The reality is, had I known that the school system was not up to par like it is, I would not have moved here.”

Bishop said his family is not thrilled even with the private-school system in the area, and he can’t imagine executives or upper management — or even professional such as himself — choosing to locate to the area with a full knowledge of the education system.

“The cost of living here in Natchez is higher partially due to the fact that you have to pay for private schools — it’s like you take a pay cut as soon as you get here,” he said.

But attracting professionals with families to the area isn’t the only concern.

What a failing rating means for industrial recruiting is more difficult to measure, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said.

While Russ said the school system hasn’t cost the area an industrial recruit “that we know about,” that’s exactly the rub — some industries may have never approached economic developers because of the rating.

“These companies that are looking to expand, they are very savvy, and you have got companies that are doing a lot of research, so when they start looking at things, we could be eliminated from projects we don’t even know about, and that is somewhat daunting,” he said.

“When a company says, ‘I want to locate in the Gulf region,’ and one of their criteria is a K-12 system performing at the state or national average, you could get eliminated out of that and not know it.”

And when a company does come to the table, during those discussions the school system “is not something that is in the front and center of our dialogue,” Russ said.

Having a failing school district does not exactly help sell the region, but Russ said for many industries thinking locally means looking at a wider radius than just one town.

“Companies are so regional in their labor market, they are looking at the full education system, from the K-12 to community college to university offerings in all areas, meaning public, private and regional,” he said.

“When you look at it from a 45-mile radius of your labor market, there are performing school districts in that labor market, obviously some across the river in Louisiana and the Franklin County district also.”

The Franklin County School District was given a “B” rating for 2013, while all of the Vidalia schools had at least a “B” rating using the Louisiana scale.

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said in the 15 years he has been elected and worked with companies looking to locate to the area, he has heard the importance of having a high-performing school district. Grennell said, however, he has also seen a number of companies commit to the area anyway, especially in recent years.

“We have had a few companies coming in anyway — Elevance, von Drehle, the expansions of Genesis Energy and Enersteel, KiOR and even Rentech when they had plans to come here — during this time, and all of that indicated that it did not have an impact on those industries,” he said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to have a darn good school system in place, but I guess it depends on the type of industry — if it is an industry that involves an IBM or an Apple or something like that really requiring a lot of good math skills, I think there is some specificity to that.”

Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce President Debbie Hudson said she has gotten questions about the school district, and when she does she and others try to paint a picture of the region as a whole.

“We wish it was better, and we are not going to lie about it, but maybe those areas we are being compared to have the same issues,” she said.

“I have always said when we put numbers out there together — including our private schools and our community college and university offerings — it doesn’t change the fact that we need to work on our public schools, but it does change the look of things. I think the common theme is you have to know where you are to in order to get better.”

When the discussion of the educational system comes up with industry, Russ said the community’s ability to offer training programs at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Alcorn State University and the WIN Job Center have helped offset some negative impact.

“What has helped, quite frankly, is business testimonials,” he said. “When (prospects) sit down with someone like Elevance or Enersteel and talk with them and ask ‘is there a labor market that is trainable,’ that has been key, and so far those businesses have been able to say they have been satisfied with being able to get a trained labor force.”

But the balance of the equation is simple.

“If there was some improvement within the districts in the local area, it would definitely make our job easier,” Russ said.

Even though some industries are committing to the area, Hudson said the question and its solutions are bigger than just tests and grades. Education affects the business climate, but business can in turn affect education.

“The business community needs go get more involved,” she said. “Maybe they can go to the schools and be mentors, or maybe they help with services that aren’t being paid for with funding — our challenge is how to get an opportunity out of a challenge.”

That was a message Grennell reiterated.

“When one school is suffering, whether parochial, private or public, the entire community suffers and it is going to take the entire community to play a role in turning the situation around,” he said.

“When you have a system where kids are failing and dropping out, it is going to have a domino effect on the community and it is going to affect the quality of life.”

And quality of life is one of the first things businesses and business people look at when deciding to come to an area.