1/10/2013 - Whether it’s crowded classrooms, towns threatening to pull their students out of the district, or the search for a new superintendent, there are a lot of issues facing the Manchester School District. The business community has taken notice.
“It’s not unreasonable to assume there is a direct tie [between a community’s education system and its business community],” said Robin Comstock, president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
“We need to definitely understand that education needs to be a really critical agenda item when it comes to growing the economy,” Joseph Mendola of the Norwood Group real estate firm said.
Comstock said that in general, business leaders believe a solid, high quality, innovative education system is the foundation of a successful community, and successful business.
“There are a lot of questions to the essence of the very quality, character and condition of the education system,” Comstock said, adding those questions were directed at the school board and the board of mayor and aldermen. “There are a lot of questions about resources and what is the vision for our particular needs.”
Comstock said that, naturally, the business community cares about education in terms of workforce development and workplace readiness, but there’s more to it. Will businesses continue to locate in Manchester? Will people of childbearing years choose to live in Manchester? What will happen to property values? There are all kinds of implications for the community tied to education, Comstock said.
“Everybody cares,” said Jeremy Hitchcock, CEO and chairman at Dyn in Manchester. “Everybody wants smart people to come out of schools and be good products of the public education system. The fact that we’re having this dialogue, this conversation about it, that’s at least somewhat of an indication that we all care.”
Hitchcock said education matters a lot to his company’s workforce. Employees are often relocating from elsewhere, and they’re going to take into consideration communities’ education systems when they’re deciding where to live.
“Some of the controversies drive people away,” Hitchcock said.
The Chamber’s education committee will be meeting with several principals later this month. Chamber officials have also met with members of the school board, as well as Mayor Ted Gatsas. Comstock facilitated a community focus group in November.
“We’re hearing concerns that there are not enough resources,” Comstock said. “People intimately involved in the business community are expressing concerns that the resources are too limited for our particular demands.”
The Chamber has sent a survey to business members gauging concerns. Anecdotally, businesspeople are concerned schools are not getting enough funding. They’re also concerned the city’s education system might need a reboot.
Comstock said there is concern the city’s socioeconomic and cultural diversity are not being embraced, that the conventional education system is limited in how it can address those unique needs.
Some business community suggestions include having school year-round. Some suggest school should run 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Others have suggested alternative learning opportunities on Saturdays. Some are more focused on reorganizing the physical makeup of the district, Comstock said.
The Manchester Chamber has a long history of being involved with education. It used to have a department devoted to education. That came to an end when No Child Left Behind forced the school system to retool and regroup, Comstock said.
Filling a gap
Mendola is concerned there is a gap between the needs of businesses and the skills prospective workers have. He referenced a company in Nevada that was recently highlighted on 60 Minutes. The company needed workers with high-school level educations to operate fairly sophisticated pieces of machinery and partnered with the government and the community college system to develop training.
Most of the time, companies don’t go to those lengths and just leave, Mendola said. He is hoping to start a dialogue about what skills workers are lacking and why. From there, he wants business leaders to team up with education officials and fill the gap.
Mendola mentioned a business located in New Hampshire that needed workers to be able to perform basic mathematical equations while operating certain machinery. The company was having difficulty finding workers who could do it, since students do so much work with calculators.
“Therein lies a gap,” Mendola said. “That lets us know on the education side, we need to do a better job.”