COLUMBIA — Jim Whitt laughs easily. Sitting on a couch in the family room, his posture relaxed, the candidate for Columbia School Board speaks with good humor about himself and his work.
“Yeah, I’ve talked to a group of teachers, and I probably put my foot in my mouth,” he acknowledged. “When you’re being honest, sometimes you put your foot in your mouth, and I’ve probably done that a little bit.”
3805 Keystone Court.
63. Married to wife Annelle for 17 years. They have two sons: Marcus, 17, and Jimmy, 13.
Retired General Electric executive and former business owner.
Received a bachelor's degree from Indiana Institute of Technology and a master's degree in Business Administration from Indiana University. He is a graduate of the Kellogg School for Advanced Management Development Program.
BACKGROUND: Member of the Monsanto YMCA Board and the JW Newgen Holdings Corp. Board, and was appointed to the Columbia School Board last June to take a position vacated by Rosie Tippin. Started cPhase Sports Association with his wife. The nonprofit organization teaches commitment and success in athletics, academics and other areas of life to young men ages 12 to 18 through the pursuit of excellence in basketball.
ON THE WEB:
Whitt has a campaign website at http://jamesawhitt.org.
As a father, retired General Electric executive, and founder of cPhase, a nonprofit organization that teaches young men core values of academics and athletics through basketball, Whitt had a lot on his plate before he started campaigning for this year’s election. A first-time politician, he was appointed to the board after Rosie Tippin resigned for health reasons in May 2009. (Tippin died in July.)
The appointment was for a year. Whitt, however, is now running for one of two three-year positions against Jan Mees and Dan Holt.
Whitt said he's never seen himself as a political person. “We’re going to wade our way through this and learn how to do it — get some advice from some key people and see if we can put together a successful campaign,” he said a few weeks ago.
The campaign has been more about adjusting his thinking to operate more like a politician than any real surprises along the way, Whitt said. His campaign revolves around a five-point plan that targets the issues for which he feels the most passion. They are:
- Increasing overall student achievement and eliminating academic disparities among students
- Promoting communication between parents, schools and the community
- Managing School Board finances responsibly and being held accountable as a district
- Preparing all eligible children adequately for kindergarten through Title 1 preschool programs
- Providing safe, adequate and comparable facilities for students and faculty
At his kickoff, fundraisers and interviews, Whitt has spoken most about closing the achievement gap and improving physical facilities in the district. He supports a $120 million bond issue on the ballot for capital improvements.
The achievement gap is his top priority, and one of the points Whitt has made over and over is that teachers are the key.
“No Child Left Behind, it’s a top-down program that’s designed to correct some obvious problems that we’re having with the school system,” he said. “I think that in order to really be successful, it takes a bottoms-up approach. That relationship between student and teacher, that’s what’s going to make the difference.”
Whitt is determined to involve teachers in planning for specific strategies to close the gap in performance between students from high-income families and those from low-income families that are classified as “at-risk.”
“Studies have shown that our teachers really make the biggest impact on our students’ ability to learn,” he said.
Whitt said that if the bond issue passes, the board has a tremendous obligation to handle that money responsibly. He cited the need for air conditioning, the need for classroom space to get students out of the 164 trailers now in use, and the need to make necessary repairs in some of the older school buildings.
“I think if we’re going to be trusted enough to spend $120 million of bond money, then we want to make sure we’re spending it on the right thing and doing the right thing with it,” Whitt said in regard to building upgrades and repairs.
Annelle, Whitt's wife of 17 years and campaign manager, said her husband’s experiences in the business world give him a unique perspective on the budget and bond issue. She admires how he navigates difficult subjects and leaves listeners feeling their opinions are valued.
“I love to see him in front of small groups, especially because he has a way of engaging conversations," she said, "and he fields questions so thoughtfully.”
Board member Ines Segert also noted Whitt is particularly good at discussing touchy subjects in a respectful way.
“He makes you feel comfortable,” she said. “You know that he values your opinion and he wants to hear your opinion, and I’ve seen him do that with many, many people.”
Segert also appreciates Whitt’s willingness to bring up tough questions and challenge proposals in meetings.
“He’s not afraid to disagree with the administration’s ideas," she said.
Whitt said his experience with cPhase led him to apply for the opening on the board.
“As a result of helping some of our young people improve their education, that’s how I got involved with the school system,” he said. “Because we were representing those young people within the school system, I was able to see things from a school perspective and also a young-people-that-were-in-trouble perspective.”
Susan McClintic, president of Columbia Missouri National Educators Association, said she thinks sometimes Whitt’s passion for athletics can come across too strong.
“I think one of the things that I see with Jim is his passion for athletics can kind of reflect on more passion for athletics than for the actual school day,” she said. “… I don’t think that’s what he means for it to do.”
Whitt said one of the things he has learned observing his cPhase students and in his time on the board is that students need people in their lives that are willing to stand by them if they encounter problems at school.
“Sometimes, certain kids don’t have anyone to advocate for them, and they may have a parent that may be somewhat intimidated by all the brick and mortar you see up there, and all the very official people that are there,” he said.
Annelle Whitt admires her husband’s dedication to the board and the amount of time he commits to visiting schools in the district.
“He has done that, but not done that at the expense of his family,” she said.