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Former State Treasurer working to end poverty in the Ozarks

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wendell Bailey
When former State Treasurer Wendell Bailey turned 70 last year, he began working on a plan to fix the "horrendous high school dropout rate" and persistent poverty in the region.

Bailey intends to spend the next nine years working to promote public and private partnerships to combat the problem. His comprehensive strategic plan is designed to increase the income and educational levels in south central Missouri.

"I'm willing to invest $100,000 of my own money," Bailey said Monday, Dec. 4, during a telephone interview from his Willow Springs Chevrolet garage.

Bailey, a Willow Springs native, earned a business administration degree at Southwest Missouri State University and attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University before engaging in politics. He served four terms as a state representative and was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1980. He was state treasurer from 1984-1992. Bailey also worked for the regional office of the Small Business Administration.

Not surprisingly, his plan focuses on education, mainly getting teens to complete high school.

"High school dropouts face a life of poverty unless they are exceptional," Bailey said. "Many employers won't even give them an application -- no matter how smart they are."

The 10-county area of Carter, Douglas, Howell, Oregon, Ozark, Reynolds, Shannon, Texas, Wayne and Wright counties is hit especially hard with low income and a poor graduation rate.

Bailey points to a University of Missouri study done in 1940 that declared south central Missouri to be an area of persistent poverty. Bailey said it is as if time has stood still.

"In some cases, it's gone backward," Bailey said. "We have got the least education and lowest income in the state of Missouri."

Forty percent of the adult population in Wayne County is without a high school education. The income level in Shannon County is half of the state average. Overall, about 60 percent of area children are on the national free or reduced lunch program.

Bailey said school districts cite several reasons their enrollment numbers of freshmen and senior students do not match, such as students moving out of the district or being home schooled.

"There is always a big drop off in numbers," Bailey said.

Bailey listed four basic reasons students do not complete high school: A life-changing experience, such as a parent going to jail; fading out after falling behind; being pushed out for being disruptive; or simply not fitting the mold of an 8 a.m.-3 p.m. student.

Among other things, Bailey's plan calls for more alternative education programs, better Internet access and ways to lure industry to the area. "It begins with the idea that if we have better education, we can get a better job and better opportunities for communities," Bailey said. "Employers don't want to come to an area where they don't have a good employee base to choose from."

Bailey has begun presenting his strategic plan to groups, businesses and individuals about the 15 priorities he has outlined. On Dec. 12, Bailey will meet with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. On Dec. 20, he will speak at the South Central Ozarks Council of Government meeting in Pamona.

For more information, contact Bailey at rwendellbailey@gmail.com.

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