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West Virginia's schools do more than spend taxes

May 25, 1999

In West Virginia, where citizens cherish their right to vote on almost every proposed tax increase, the local school system is often seen as an organization that consumes rather than provides tax dollars. But according to a new Associated Press survey, school systems in the Mountain State are a key source of jobs and income for their communities.

School systems are the largest employers in 35 of the state's 55 counties and the No. 2 employer in 14 other counties. In the remaining six counties, the school systems are at least the fourth-largest employer in every area.

School officials surveyed were glad to see their systems portrayed in a positive light, but also recognized that it's the job of their organizations to produce an educated population that will increase the number of jobs outside the school system.

That means tailoring the curriculum to the needs of existing and future businesses, according to state Sen. Lloyd Jackson, the chairman of the senate's education panel.

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State officials are hoping to develop an area attractive to technology-based businesses along the Clarksburg-Fairmont-Morgantown Interstate 79 corridor, but without graduates who are familiar with that new technology, Jackson says it won't happen.

The link between education and new business opportunities will grow in the next 10 years, because as the AP survey notes, there will be an estimated 7,000 teacher retirements during that time period. The educators hired to replace them will be expected to work in collaboration with business so that entry-level employees don't show up needing remedial work in math, reading and skills like workplace teamwork.

It would be a mistake, however, to put all the responsibility for creating this new relationship on the school system. Businesses need to come forward and make their needs known and become partners with schools. But schools also need parents to tell their kids that the old way of doing things - in which students learned a trade in the mines or on the factory floor - is obsolete and that today the job of learning for life begins long before graduation.

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