Good schools build thriving communities

Over 40 years ago, my husband and I settled into our first home on West Orlando Street in Pine Bluff. For ambitious 20-somethings, locating a half block from the newly built Edgewood Elementary was a no-brainer. I was eager to begin my teaching career and we knew we wanted our children to attend the Watson Chapel School District.

For a community to thrive, good schools are a necessity. As parents, grandparents, citizens and leaders, we cannot afford to remain voiceless while our once-flourishing community wastes away and our public education system crumbles.

I taught civics, government and U.S. history at Watson Chapel Junior High and High School for 26 years before entering the public service arena. Both my children are graduates of Watson Chapel and have built successful careers as a principal and doctor through the excellent education they received. This community is where I raised my family, built a career and was elected to proudly serve my neighbors and friends in the state Legislature.

During my six years in the Arkansas House of Representatives, I served on the Education Committee, which worked to provide the means for every young person in the state to receive a quality education. You and I share the same responsibility as members of this community, and must continually strive to provide the very best opportunities for our precious children. As I reminisce about the school where my kids began their education, it is clear we must stop ignoring the realities of our suffering school system, take action and start over by building a new Edgewood Elementary.

The Watson Chapel School District is under a state mandate from the Arkansas Department of Education to replace Edgewood Elementary. From deteriorating buildings to traces of asbestos and classrooms that do not meet basic state safety and health regulations, Edgewood Elementary is simply not able to provide our youngest students with a suitable environment for learning. Aging facilities are not attractive to families — whether they live in the district or consider Watson Chapel through school choice. New families, bright young students and businesses are overlooking our community everyday and planting their roots in nearby areas with better resources and newer schools. Thankfully, we can change that.

On May 14, the Watson Chapel School District is asking voters to approve a 2.3-mill increase to build a new, safe and healthy elementary school. There has not been a millage increase in our community in nearly four decades, since 1974. Watson Chapel has the lowest millage rate in Jefferson County, and even with this increase our rate would still be at the very bottom.

Neighbors and friends approach me often with concerns about declining population and the inability for our school system to compete with surrounding districts. Working together is the only way we can secure the best possible future for our children.

Weak schools do not build strong communities. We must offer families considering a move to our area a quality education and safe learning environment for their children. That’s what my husband and I were looking for over 40-plus years ago when we bought our first home on West Orlando. We found it then, and with your help in passing this millage on May 14, young families and their children can find it as well.

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Toni Bradford is a retired Watson Chapel teacher who served three terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 2007 to 2012. She and her husband currently reside in the Watson Chapel community.