BY MIKE FUHRMAN
After more than 30 years in this business, I am rarely surprised by anything that happens at a local candidates’ forum.
On Thursday night, during the Iredell Republican Men’s Club forum, Statesville mayoral candidate Michael Johnson said something that got my attention.
One of two clear frontrunners — along with incumbent Mayor Costi Kutteh — in the May 17 election, Johnson acknowledged that the City of Statesville has missed out on significant economic development opportunities because of the quality of public schools in the city limits.
Johnson was not taking an unnecessary swipe at local educators, many of whom have dedicated decades to teaching students. Below average student performance on standardized tests have resulted in low rankings for schools in the city for years. That’s not news.
What’s news is that Johnson said the city government should help remedy this issue.
For years candidates and elected city officials alike have decried the importance of workforce development while deflecting any responsibility for student achievement. “We don’t have a dog in that fight” has been a common refrain in City Hall since for at least the past 20 years.
While it’s true that the Iredell County Board of Commissioners and State of North Carolina are primarily responsible for funding schools in Iredell County, there is nothing that prevents the City of Statesville from providing financial support for the schools in the city limits.
The city government has supported schools in subtle ways over the years. For example, as Mayor Kutteh pointed out Thursday, the council allocates funding for school resource officers in city schools and performs maintenance on roads near schools. Several years ago, the council contributed millions of dollars to help with the renovation of Mac Gray Auditorium at Statesville High School.
Those contributions are surely appreciated, but none of them moves the needle when it comes to academic performance.
What Johnson, who previously served on council for 16 years before losing in a run-off mayoral election to Kutteh in 2017, proposed Thursday night was establishing a revenue stream to help Iredell-Statesville Schools close student achievement gaps.
In response to a question proposed by moderator Ron Wyatt, Johnson pitched the idea of a bond referendum to support city schools. He pointed to the Mooresville Graded School District, where businesses and residents pay an additional 18-cent property tax to support MGSD schools. As a result of this funding stream, Johnson said, Mooresville has been able to boost student performance and attract new business and industry that want to relocate to communities with exemplary public education.
Johnson did not propose a significant tax amount.
No doubt I-SS Superintendent Jeff James could find ways to use any revenue stream — no matter how big or small — that was tied to recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers in city schools, to funding apprenticeships and trades programs, to expanding early childhood education, or to boosting existing reading and mentoring programs.
Regardless of who wins the mayoral race and the contested council races in the May 17 election, this is an idea that should be fully explored by our elected officials. City voters should be given the opportunity support this investment in our children.
If we don’t have a dog in this fight, we need to re-examine our priorities and what it is we’re fighting for.
OTHER BIG IDEAS
Only three of the seven candidates for mayor — Johnson, Kutteh and Brian Summers — participated in the forum. While candidates repeated popular themes related to supporting economic development, the importance of continuing to invest in Statesville Regional Airport and providing competitive wages to city employees, all candidates had at least one idea or proposal that set them apart:
♦ Kutteh expressed his support for growing the public transportation system in the city beyond ICATS, which runs the “Bloom” on-demand route in the city. He called for a feasibility study and incremental steps toward a system that would help city residents get to and from work.
♦ Summers vowed to serve as a full-time volunteer mayor, fulfilling the responsibilities of the office without accepting a salary. He also endorsed using city revenues to fund pre-K programs.
Mike Fuhrman is editor of Iredell Free News.