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GOLIS: Schools, jobs and the future

Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 8:20 a.m.

Hizzoner the mayor talked to Sonoma County leaders this month about the importance of education in economic development. Unfortunately, it wasn't the mayor of Santa Rosa or Healdsburg or Petaluma who was talking; it was the mayor of Nashville, Tenn.

Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville has made education and jobs — they go together — the No. 1 priority of his administration.

I know what you're thinking. In California, schools operate independently of cities and other government agencies (or at least they did before Proposition 13 shifted the power of the purse to the governor and the state Legislature).

But there is a growing awareness that education is too important to be left only to individual school boards. This new consciousness recognizes that education is not just a moral imperative. It's also the best available indicator of future prosperity for all of us.

Want to keep a firehouse in your neighborhood? Fix a pothole? Keep one neighborhood or another from sliding into decline? Avoid the blight of empty storefronts? What you need to know is that jobs pay the bills for all of us. Jobs pay taxes, and jobs put money in circulation, which, in turn, creates more jobs.

In Nashville, Mayor Dean said, his administration is dedicated to the idea that a trained workforce and jobs go together. Good schools, he noted, also attract companies whose executives want their own kids to get a good education.

Over the next 30 years, he said, the most successful cities will have the most college graduates. “You've got to have a thriving economy, and schools are a big part of it.”

And so government agencies in his town are finding common ground to support kids and families. As an example, he cited a new partnership between city and school libraries.

At the Cradle to Career Sonoma County conference, the mayor of Nashville found an audience of government, nonprofit and business leaders pledging to embrace a commitment to shared responsibility and common goals. More than 375 people showed up for a morning-long conversation, organized by the Community Action Partnership with help from the county Health Services Department, the county Office of Education and others.

When it comes to collaboration, we don't make it easy on ourselves. Whether it's an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies, or a raft of nonprofits, our good intentions run headlong into our need to create a separate agency for every kind of assignment.

County government, nine cities, 40 school districts, park districts, fire districts, sanitation districts, water districts — we are awash in silos that let us pretend that someone else is responsible.

For many years, it's been popular to blame schools for declining student performance, but as speakers at this conference noted, students spend only 11 percent of their time in classrooms.

Many factors — family support, nutrition, safe neighborhoods, health care, mentorships, recreation programs and, yes, schools — contribute to student success (or lack of success).

In recent months, government agencies that don't manage schools have talked a lot about economic development. They tweak planning rules or throw a few bucks at one program or another.

But the truth is, these efforts are working at the margins of the problem.

Over time, what will matter is whether local kids get an education.

The Cradle to Career conference — attended by a majority of the Board of Supervisors — acknowledges this hard reality.

So does the public-private consortium called Health Action, which is using third-grade reading scores and high school graduation rates as measures of the county's well-being.

And so does the new Scholarship Sonoma County program. (Full disclosure: The program rests under the umbrella of Community Foundation Sonoma County, where I serve on the board.)

In recent years, an aging population has acted as if educational achievement is someone else's problem. After all, their own kids have grown up and moved on.

We could say their attitude is selfish — but it's also shortsighted. Once upon a time, the finest system of public education in the world was the engine that made California one of the largest economies in the world.

In future years, the link between education and jobs will have everything to do with the quality of life where you live.

If the mayor in your town suddenly wants to talk about education, don't complain. Honor her or him for recognizing what is important to the future we all share.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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