With August heralding the beginning of another school year, it is certainly timely and appropriate that iBi focus our attention on education. Anyone who has followed my tenure as mayor knows that I place the highest priority on education—enhancement of workforce skills and academic effectiveness—as the foundation for sustainable community economic development. If these words sound familiar, it is because they embody the mission of Peoria Promise. And I make no apology for repeating them over and over to reinforce that a solid, successful educational system—public and private—is indeed the greatest community investment we as citizens make. It is the investment that, in the final analysis, makes the greatest contribution to a community’s overall quality of life… as measured by economic vitality and growth, neighborhood stability, public safety and trust, intergovernmental cooperation and good city government.
In our structure of city government, the Office of Mayor has no formal authority or role in the conduct of our community’s educational institutions and their effectiveness as judged by graduation rates, student achievement, workforce skills development and academic excellence. But there is a huge informal role in terms of leadership and the pursuit of a nurturing, sustaining quality of life for all citizens. There is another very practical reason that I spend a significant deal of time and energy on our common interest in educational performance: residents hold the mayor responsible, above all others, for what they perceive as matters of our city’s welfare.
When the Peoria County real estate tax bill arrives in mailboxes in April, it lists 11 units of local government. The one taxing body that is consistently dominant is Peoria School District 150. About 56 percent of the total goes for public education—and there is good reason for that. But taxpayers do not necessarily differentiate between “the City” and those other bodies. The City Council and Mayor are the most accessible and transparent representatives of local taxing bodies, as witnessed regularly at Council meetings, and we are often held accountable for matters outside of our statutory authority. It comes with the territory, and we accept this when seeking office.
There is no question that local education is our most important investment. Consider this: with Peoria School District 150 enrollment of approximately 13,450 students and an annual budget of $204 million, we spend $15,200 per student per year. If a student stays in the district for all 13 years of kindergarten through 12th grade, that’s a total student investment of nearly $200,000! In my book, that’s a lot of money, and it is incumbent on all of us to work together to make sure true “value” is realized for the student, parents, taxpayers and overall community. Should we settle for high school graduation rates of 71 percent? Should we ignore troublesome truancy rates? Should we turn our heads when many of those who graduate from high school cannot afford a college education? My mayoral “report card” clearly shows the answer is “NO.”
That is why I have devoted time and resources to supporting local educational performance through Peoria Promise, for example. Since its founding in 2006-07, Peoria Promise has enabled more than 1,600 students from Peoria’s schools to attend Illinois Central College on over $2 million in scholarships—funded entirely by private sources. Peoria Promise is making a remarkable difference in motivating kids to stay in school and graduate so they qualify for a scholarship. It is equipping young men and women with useful workforce skills and allowing them to successfully compete for good careers. And it continues to demonstrate that our investments in education do indeed produce economic development and job opportunities.
Peoria Promise needs significant financial help, though. I hope, as you read this, you will consider an investment in our future—our kids’ education—through Peoria Promise. Please call me or Peoria Promise Executive Director Sheri McGill to arrange time to discuss your potential investment.
Hand in glove with Peoria Promise, for the past 10 years, the Mayor’s Office has facilitated the volunteer position of “Mayor’s Education Liaison.” In this role, Dr. Bill Collier has performed an outstanding service: building bridges with area school districts and other units of local government, the Peoria Federation of Teachers, business leaders, and state and national experts on the educational improvement landscape, and working tirelessly with great openness and congeniality with District 150 leadership. I am indebted to Dr. Collier’s work, and much of the groundwork he has prepared for educational success in Peoria will continue to blossom in the years ahead. As evidence of this, he now provides leadership to the Peoria Promise Foundation as president of the board of directors.
I am aware that in the course of my dedication to helping strengthen our local schools, some feathers have been ruffled. Some may say I poked my nose where it didn’t belong. My response is simply that our greatest community investment is in the education of our young men and women. If I don’t do all I can to raise the tide that lifts all boats in our great city, I would not be worthy of my office. I will be advocating for more community discussion on this topic in the months ahead.
If one takes a few moments to stand back and look at all of Peoria’s educational resources, you realize why we must protect and enhance our investment. As I noted, there are more than 13,000 kids in District 150 and about 4,500 enrolled at Peoria’s parochial schools. And then there are our outstanding higher education resources: Bradley University, Illinois Central College, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing, Methodist College, Midstate College and Robert Morris University. All of these provide us with powerful magnets to attract and retain the very best. And this is why education is my top priority: it’s our greatest and most important investment! iBi