By Madelynn Coldiron
As a former lobbyist for AT&T and its union, Anderson County school board Vice Chairman James Sargent knew the importance of developing a cordial relationship with legislators before launching directly into any requests.
That’s how three lawmakers – including the House Education Committee chairman – found themselves shuttled between three Anderson County schools last fall, where they watched students learning lessons and ate a cafeteria-prepared lunch.
Photo: State Sen. Julian Carroll, (D-Frankfort) visits with students (from left to right) Emma Osborne, Gracie Dedman and Jalyn Barnett at Anderson County’s Saffell Street Elementary School. The former governor was one of three lawmakers to tour the district’s schools last fall. Photo by Blake Drury/Anderson County Schools
“You need to get involved with them before you try to lobby if you can,” said Sargent, the KSBA legislative contact for the Anderson County school board. “Invite them to your school, have lunch with them, get to know them on a one-on-one basis.”
Sargent got the idea for the school tour and worked with Superintendent Sheila Mitchell to flesh out the details. The senator who represents the area, Julian Carroll (D-Frankfort) attended, as did the representative, Kim King (R-Harrodsburg). The district also invited House Education Committee Chairman Carl Rollins (D-Midway) due to his key position.
“I thought it would be important for him to be involved with us and for me to get to know him on a first-hand basis to help us on matters that would come up in the future,” Sargent said. “It really worked.”
The group began the morning with an orientation at the central office, drove to the high school and then the middle school, ending up at Saffell Street Elementary, where they carried their cafeteria trays to the library for lunch after their tour of that building. Scheduling conflicts kept the group from visiting the district’s early childhood center.
Mitchell said she asked each principal to choose the classrooms to spotlight. Some teachers also volunteered to host the group.
“I wanted them to see each level,” Mitchell said.
At the high school, Advanced Placement classes and the Early College program were highlighted. The lawmakers viewed a variety of content classes at the elementary and middle schools. They also got a look at the district’s new initiative that allows students to bring and use their own electronic devices in the classroom.
The two representatives and senator – Carroll is a former governor – took time to talk to students about government and their roles. And they heard from school leaders during lunch about their budget concerns and the impact of cuts on programs.
Mitchell and Sargent said the lawmakers responded positively to the tour and lunch.
“I think for the long term I would hope the visit allowed the legislators to see some of the really positive things going on in public schools, from cooperative learning to the integration of technology in the classrooms,” Mitchell said.
The tour also conveyed the message that “every dime that they invest within our schools is going to have a very positive effect on the future,” she added.
KSBA Associate Executive Director David Baird, another guest for the tour, called the Anderson County event “almost a model example” of how this kind of school visit should be carried out. Any school district can do it, he added.
“The most important thing is that this was something that was the idea of a local school board member and it was grassroots all the way,” Baird said. “They set it up, they invited the legislators, prepared the schedule.”