RICHARD HYATT: Conversation that needs to happen

June 28, 2013 

Conversation that needs to happen

Lunch was being served at the former offices of the Greater Columbus, Ga., Chamber of Commerce, and the guests of honor were members of Columbus Council and the Muscogee County School Board.

The hosts carefully assigned every seat, alternating members of each elected body in an effort to encourage camaraderie and fellowship.

It was a waste of time.

When officials arrived, they shuffled the name cards so they could sit together and not have to pass bread and butter to their adversaries from the other side.

That was a few years ago and some of the lightning-rod personalities are no longer in office, but the separation and conflict have not gone away.

Right now they're bickering over parking on the Macon Road campus that is shared by the Columbus Public Library, the Muscogee County Public Education Center and the City Service Center, soon to be joined by the city's new indoor swimming facility.

The school system doesn't want anyone parking in its lot or at the library while doing business with the city. This same body did not want to be a partner in the nearby parking garage.

Their ongoing lack of rapport came to mind when I heard an online interview conducted with the former mayor of Decatur, a small but progressive Atlanta suburb.

Otis White, a former colleague of mine at the Columbus Ledger, was discussing educational leadership with Bill Floyd, and our officials could learn from their conversation. White's podcast is found at www.gmanet.com.

To my surprise, Floyd -- a city official for 14 years -- said school board members have a tougher job than their peers in government. "No two jobs are more important than the school board and school superintendent," he said.

Floyd said Decatur officials are in regular communication and that the city keeps its nose in school business, especially when it concerns site selection, traffic and economic development. Representatives of the panels meet irregularly to discuss common issues.

That led to shared responsibilities. "We cut grass. They cut grass. Why not let one mower cut all the grass?"

If that isn't revolutionary enough, Floyd said city officials can even get involved in school board elections.

Granted Decatur is dramatically smaller than Columbus, but the principle of getting along and sharing common assignments is worth noting.

Could the Consolidated Government cut the grass at our schools? Could Parks and Recreation play a larger role in after-school programs? Could prisoners clean up schoolhouses just as they care for public facilities? Is there a way the city can help in the transportation of children?

These items are worth discussing. But before they can be explored, the school board and council must be on speaking terms.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at www.twitter.com/hyattrichard.

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