A decade of making a difference at Lee Education Foundation

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 04:58 AM

Dozens of local businessmen, politicians and educators gathered over dinner Thursday night to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Lee County Education Foundation, a private enterprise that supports public education in the county.

The group is most notable for The Head of Class, a merit-based pay program that awards tens of thousands of dollars to local schools and staff members each year, rewarding the district’s highest-performing elementary schools. It has been praised by several former N.C. governors and a long-serving U.S. secretary of education, and a statewide lobbying group comprised of public school superintendents used it as a model for recommendations to the General Assembly several months ago.

But that program has only been around since 2010. The Foundation itself goes back to 2003, and those early years were a large focus of Thursday’s celebration. Dennis Wicker, a Sanford native and former lieutenant governor and state representative, said the Foundation was a long time in the making but has ended up making a measurable difference in the quality of local schools.

Wicker said it all started when, as he told it in remarks during the ceremony, Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce dropped by his Raleigh law office one day and told him he thought the local business community might be convinced to support education because it can be an economic driver in and of itself. Wicker was intrigued and pitched the idea to a group of high-powered locals — a group he said he didn’t think he had persuaded at first, looking up after his speech and seeing everyone’s eyes cast down at the table.

But the Foundation grew from that meeting, ultimately bringing its endowment up to $1 million under the guidance of Kirk Bradley, who stepped down as chairman last year to make way for current board of directors chairman Chet Mann, the emcee at Thursday’s soirée. Before Bradley and now Mann, the office was held by Wicker, then Rex Scott, Donnie Oldham and Kel Normann.

Bradley joked that everyone’s head was down after Wicker’s initial pitch because they knew he was about to ask them for money, which he said the Foundation’s members have gotten quite good at doing. In fact, Bradley said, he once went to people from Chapel Hill’s education foundation to get some tips but instead spent much of the meeting fielding questions about how Lee County managed to raise such a large endowment. Wicker explained that Lee County is simply a community of builders.

“We wanted to do something new,” he said. “We wanted to do something unique. We wanted to do something that would move the needle in the classroom.”

Lee County Superintendent Jeff Moss, who oversaw the first two years of The Head of Class and led the lobbying group that suggested it be used across the state, is now planning to leave Lee County for a larger district in South Carolina — a move Mann said is possible because of how well local schools have done under his command. But Moss gave much of the credit for those successes to The Head of Class program, other financial support from the Foundation and technological programs like the district’s 1:1 Laptops initiative, which he said was strongly suggested by Foundation members.

“We truly made the gains we’ve made because of you in the audience,” Moss said. “... Folks, I’ll tell you, I’ve been in this business for a number of years, and that is not common.”

Mann gave the last speech of the night, asking that support for local schools not be abandoned although public education is frequently a target of both budget cuts and political rhetoric. He asked people to think carefully about calling for increased school choice.

“Whenever you create choice, you run the risk of creating winners and losers,” Mann said. “And we here in Lee County don’t want losers.”

Earlier in the night, the group honored Libby Winstead, former executive director of the Foundation, and founding member Peggy Clemmer Golden. Bradley was also honored for his service, with a painting by East Lee Middle School art teacher Micki Saad that gave an artistic rendering of the statue the Foundation commissioned for The Head of Class.