Monday, July 14, 2008

Chamber defends role in school rezoning

By JAIME SARRIO • Staff Writer (Tennessean)• July 14, 2008 The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has been scrutinized in recent weeks for allegedly influencing a massive rezoning of Metro Schools. Saturday, the group's president, Ralph Schulz, took the chance to defend the chamber's interest in schools with the following mass e-mail:A special message to our members: As you know, the improvement of Nashville's public school system has consistently been a top priority for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. We strongly believe that all students and every school must succeed in order for our entire community to grow and prosper. On Tuesday evening, the Metro School Board passed a major rezoning plan by a 5-4 vote. Unfortunately, polarizing discussions about this plan have occurred, and there has been considerable misinformation about the Chamber's role in this issue. For the last several years, the School Board has tried to address rezoning needs and under-enrollment at many of Nashville's schools. To broaden community involvement, each School Board member and the mayor appointed a representative to serve on a citizens' rezoning task force beginning in January of this year. The job of this diverse task force was to research, discuss and recommend a new zoning plan that would address the district's capacity problems, allow many children to go to school closer to home, provide more school choices for families and preserve diversity in the system. The Chamber's chief education officer was chosen to serve as one citizen member of this task force, as was a state legislator, two former Metro Council members, a minister active in the Interdenominational Ministerial Fellowship, parent representatives and a sitting member of the School Board. The citizens' rezoning task force met nearly every week for six months and received considerable comments and input from the public and from school employees. A first draft of the task force's rezoning plan was presented to the School Board on May 28, and a public hearing on the plan was held June 3. While the School Board was originally scheduled to vote on the recommendation June 24, the task force decided to hold three additional public hearings to allow for more community feedback. After making some additional changes based on public input, the task force then met and voted unanimously to recommend the rezoning proposal to the School Board for adoption at its July 8 meeting. The Chamber as an organization never took a position or played a role during the entire rezoning discussion and decision. We fully supported the process outlined by the School Board and the mayor, and we supported the responsibility of the citizens' rezoning task force to develop a consensus recommendation that addresses a complicated and difficult issue. While we commend the citizens' task force and the School Board for successfully addressing the rezoning issue, we recognize that there are Nashvillians who have serious concerns and/or questions about the adopted plan. In particular, the public hearings revealed concerns that schools with a high concentration of students in poverty would not receive the additional academic resources outlined in the rezoning plan. We want our members to know that the Chamber welcomes the opportunity to participate in discussions with our school system, other community organizations and everyday citizens about how to ensure that the promises outlined in the plan are kept. We stand ready to work today, as we have in the past, to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. And we stand ready to work with other community organizations that believe every one of our schools must be successful. Nashville will face many challenges in raising school performance to the level it expects and desires, and it will be important for all elements of the community to work together to achieve that goal. We want to assure our members that the Chamber is a committed, long-term partner in the success of our public schools. While there may be times of controversy as our community struggles with how best to improve our schools, the Chamber has a long commitment to partnering on behalf of public education: The Chamber has consistently taken a leadership role in advocating for increased education funding at the state legislature, at the Metro Council and on behalf of public referenda. In addition, the Chamber partners with other community organizations to promote Friends of Metro Schools. The Chamber's Education Report Card Committee, currently in its 16th year, convenes a group of business leaders and citizens to annually assess our school system's progress and make recommendations for improvement. The Chamber is partnering with other community nonprofits to recruit businesses to be a part of the new career academies, set to begin this school year in seven of Nashville's public high schools. The Chamber partners with the Mayor's Office to organize the Mayor's First Day Festival. Funded entirely by donations from private businesses, the Festival provides free school supplies and educational materials to families at the start of each school year. The Chamber conducted a study in 2002 that pointed toward a need to bring community resources together. The result was the formation of Alignment Nashville, an organization that helps coordinate community efforts to improve our education system. For the last 17 years, the Chamber's Leadership Study Missions have explored education options in other cities as an integral part of each trip's focus. As always, the strength of the Chamber is the active engagement of our membership. If you are interested in getting involved in the broad effort to improve Metro Schools for all of Nashville's children, please contact Marc Hill at 743-3155 or Sincerely, Ralph Schulz President & CEONashville Area Chamber of Commerce

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