A few days ago, I was having an early-morning meeting at a local restaurant. The tables at this particular establishment have a nice degree of privacy. And so it was at a nearby table that two men were talking in a spirited manner about “that Mayor Ardis” without realizing I was within earshot. While I had my own conversation keeping me fully occupied, I couldn’t help but hearing the comment, “What is wrong with that guy? First he wants to put the city and county together, and now I read he wants to run the public schools. Doesn’t he have enough headaches at City Hall to keep him busy?”

In reflecting on that discussion, I have to say that I am pleased. The good news, in my opinion, is that people are starting to take notice of very serious challenges facing our community and they are talking about them more openly. There is no bad news in this scenario. I didn’t run for mayor to sit around and be satisfied with the status quo of those things in Peoria that determine our future as a viable and livable community. And there is no dimension of community life more important to our future than having the very best possible educational system.

Since I wrote in my last iBi article about looking at the feasibility of combining city and county operations and gaining the efficiencies and financial affordability that just might occur, I won’t repeat what I said two months ago, except that there is indeed a direct relationship between a so-called “unigov” type local government structure and the quality of local education. Why? Well, just look at your recent Peoria County real estate tax bill. All the local public entities listed are competing for the same tax dollar. And it doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that 56 percent of that tax goes to public education. Doesn’t this argue for making sure we all strive to be the best we can be for the common taxpayer? Doesn’t this argue for increased focus on those dimensions of community life that determine ultimate success and greatness as a community? Doesn’t this argue that those of us elected with a public trust need to look beyond the blinders of our specific office to the larger elements of what makes a “community”? And doesn’t this argue that we should at least try to raise the bar, raise the level of excellence, and create new pride and a sense of shared accomplishment?

For all of the above reasons, I am most willing to talk about our educational challenges and how we can work together to prepare the ultimate output of the system—the students—to be capable of pursuing higher education, to be more employable, to be better citizens and to want to fully participate in community life, thereby perpetuating and enhancing our reputation and performance as a great city.

I happen to believe that the core value of any community needs to be the priority it places on educational success, achievement and accomplishment. And that is why I was privileged to help host a truly historic educational symposium in Peoria in April. It was a remarkable event when you consider the nationally recognized experts who took the time to share their experiences and resources.

The overall purpose of the symposium was to raise the quality of our educational expectations and begin planning to achieve local educational greatness. That purpose was based on the premise that the status quo is simply not acceptable. The status quo is not good enough if Peoria wants to get in stride with—and surpass—our peer communities in this state and elsewhere. By bringing in leaders of the educational reform movement such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, Brown University’s Department of Education Chair Dr. Kenneth Wong, and my friend, Mayor Tim Davlin of Springfield, we were able, with local educational leaders and public school board members, to collectively raise our sights and expectations.

One of the symposium’s subjects was the role of a community’s mayor in helping to drive greater performance and accountability in the public educational system. Dr. Wong has written books on the subject and Mayor Davlin, in a city similar to ours, shares my recognition that any mayor today in an urban community simply cannot ignore the impact of schools on the city’s success as an enterprise.

Let me make it clear: Jim Ardis is not aiming to run Peoria Public School District 150. But I will also restate that I believe there is convincing merit in examining approaches and strategies for greater mayoral participation in the overall direction of the public school system. And a key element in that greater participation is mayoral appointment of school board members. Space does not permit a full discussion here on the pros and cons of greater mayoral involvement, but the record is clear that in other cities which have mayoral participation, accountability for educational oversight and direction is significantly strengthened. Performance of public systems can be improved when there is clear understanding of where the buck stops.

My hope is that the symposium is just one step, albeit an incredibly important one, in breaking the noose of the status quo and going for greatness in public education. What’s next is increased community discussion and increased research into the results of other communities where public education is indeed the flagship of community greatness. One idea gaining momentum is the creation of a study group and education commission composed of all educational service providers—public and parochial, higher educational institutions—and of progressive educational activists who have achieved success in creating a Peoria charter school, for example, and those who work so hard in garnering resources and directing the work of Peoria Promise. This education commission would be the focal point for an intense drive forward based on what we learned on April 21st, what we know we need to do, and what we know can be achieved.

So, no, I don’t want to run the schools. Yes, I want to use every tool and capability of my office to pursue and reach a higher level of performance. And finally, being the best we can be will be our common, shared legacy for our kids and grandchildren who will make Peoria their home and the focus of their dreams and lives.

Oh, upon paying my bill at the restaurant, I bumped into the guys who were talking about me. “Mr. Mayor,” one of them said, “Keep up the good work.” I smiled, thanked him and thought, “Only in Peoria!” iBi