A few weeks ago, I was privileged to present my fourth State of the City address. This has proven to be a good opportunity to talk about our great community and lay out a blueprint for future progress—not only about those functions directly under the City’s control, but those equally important activities that help make Peoria an attractive, competitive and exciting place to call home.
Probably the most critical of those activities not under the City’s control, but so vital to our future, is public education, and particularly, School District 150. Specifically, I touched upon a few ways the District and the City work together—such as the development and design of new schools and school expansions—and I mentioned that the District must face the necessity of closing one of the high schools. The fact is that the District has too many facilities for a decreased number of students. District enrollment, nearly 25,000 in 1970, is now less than 14,000.
I received a fair amount of feedback on my remarks. Some favorable, and some not too complimentary! I fully accept that this comes with the territory of serving as mayor. But the commentary did encourage me to think more about why I concern the Office of Mayor with the public school system’s future. Basically, there are six reasons for my concern.
- First and foremost, the quality of the school system directly contributes to the quality of the workforce, and ultimately, the quality of the community. We are able to attract world-class employers because we have a well-educated workforce. Our competitiveness as a community is tied to the strength of our public schools.
- The City and the District basically serve the same taxpaying public. We both draw on the same tax base, and we share a common responsibility for good governance and good education. We have a joint obligation to be efficient and effective stewards of the public trust and public treasure.
- The City is a provider of services to the District. Not only do we provide essential public safety and inspection services, but our role in building community infrastructure also contributes to school safety, appeal and quality. When the school system plans major facility improvements, we now have a school impact zone strategy to focus the City’s resources as effectively as possible to support the District’s plans, and in the process, improve the adjacent neighborhoods.
- A thriving school system is an engine of economic growth in its role as a major employer and purchaser of supplies and services. District 150 employs 2,800 people, including about 1,000 teachers. They have significant purchasing power as individual consumers and contribute to our common tax base as property owners.
- I am a personal consumer of the District’s services, in that my children attend the public schools. I care deeply about the quality of education they receive and their opportunity for the extracurricular activities, including athletics, that the schools provide. Their ability to succeed in life is founded on quality education, in addition to a supportive and loving family environment.
- Finally, I concern my office with the future of District 150 because of the commitment we have made to Peoria Promise. As I said in my address, Peoria Promise started on a wing and a prayer, but it is now picking up steam. We raised $500,000 in 2008, and our first class of students consisted of nearly 250 young adults who now have the means to attend college. Our goal for this year is to raise $1 million, because next year’s class will total nearly 500 students. Young adults who want to go college have more hope than ever to do just that with Peoria Promise by their side.
Yes, I sometimes poke my nose where some folks think it doesn’t belong. But I ask you this: Isn’t it better to error on the side of involvement, concern and commitment than to sit idly by as one of our greatest community assets—our schools and the kids—are pounded by changing demographics, social pressures and economic times without the support of the community to ultimately win? A broken nose will heal; a broken heart and soul won’t. iBi