A call to action for public schools

Every day thousands of people in Fayette County help the 40,000 kids in our public schools prepare for their futures.

Dedicated teachers and principals work hard to teach them. Engaged parents make sure they are ready to learn, and volunteer in countless ways to support them and their schools.

Businesses, civic organizations and individuals support the schools in many ways, including paying taxes.

Often this enormous community support succeeds. Thousands of students emerge from our schools prepared to succeed in the workplace, advance to the next level of education and engage in civic life.

We can, and should, celebrate these accomplishments.

But now — after a year of budget cuts, public acrimony, finger-pointing, a bruising report by the state auditor — dysfunction in the district's central office and discord within the five-member school board overshadow and threaten to disrupt this excellent work.

The recent resignation of Superintendent Tom Shelton complicates matters further. Although his leadership has legitimately been questioned, his departure presents its own set of challenges. An interim superintendent will be somewhat hamstrung in planning and implementing the serious change the auditor's report called for.

Plus, the district is in the potentially explosive process of redrawing attendance lines to take into account two new elementary schools and a new high school that will come on line soon.

Worse, it's hard to imagine the district will attract a robust field of superintendent candidates for the permanent job in the current environment.

We see little hope the professionals who run our district and the Board of Education elected to guide them can restore confidence in the school system's future without some serious help.

That help must come from this community. Leaders — from business, government, higher education and the non-profit sector — must engage in a serious, focused effort to help our school district through these next several critical months. Most important will be business people who can provide insight into how to restructure the district's financial and other management systems to restore integrity, align them with the goal of educating our children and assure accountability.

We hope this would be only the first step in a new, more systematic involvement of the business community in the schools, as has happened elsewhere. Such a commitment could go a long way toward convincing promising superintendent candidates that if they come to Lexington the community will have their back.

Private sector leaders won't have to look far for advice on how to engage. Some have already reached out to Cincinnati, where business community engagement has played a critical role in a school turnaround initiative that has produced impressive results.

The Cincinnati effort is described in "Lasting Impact: A Business Leader's Playbook for Supporting America's Schools," produced by the Harvard Business School, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group. The report also describes how the GE Foundation has engaged with the Louisville and other public school districts in several important ways. Among them was connecting a GE staff member to a school district to help "leaders improve their management capacity," and "to improve working relationships among key players."

This isn't a call to micro-manage the public schools. It's a call to Lexington's leaders to provide the support, encouragement and, if necessary, prodding that our school district needs at this critical juncture.