Chester Co.'s newest leader speaks

GREAT FALLS -- Dr. Laurens Fort Jr., a 67-year-old Great Falls dentist, won his region's seat on the Chester County school board this week.

Having no political experience, Fort said he ran for the District 2 seat, vacated by John Davis in June, because he wanted to give voters another choice.

On the day after his election, Fort talked to Herald reporter Charles Perry about the educational issues the county faces, including school choice and school consolidation, subjects that have generated much discussion in recent months.

Q. Name an issue facing the school board that's most important to you.

A. "The primary thing is education. We're not football factories or basketball factories, although I am a sports fan and I consider sports to be extremely important. But they are second to the school, to education."

Q. Is there anything specific, such as test scores, that's important to you?

A. "Test scores are certainly very important. I think that it's also important to provide complete opportunities for all the kids who are attending our schools without shortchanging any of the sub-groups. We have various groups of kids. We have the talented and gifted at one end of the spectrum and we have the special ed people at the other end of the spectrum. And I think they all deserve equal opportunities."

Q. School consolidation has been discussed recently in Chester County. What do you think of that idea?

A. I think consolidation should be considered only when it's in the educational best interest of the children. Further on that topic, Chester County is going to grow. There is no question about it. We have ... growth coming from Columbia ... growth coming form Charlotte. And where is it going to meet? It's going to meet here in Chester County. It's only a question of time. When that occurs ... people are going to want, desire and demand more schools and community schools. They're not going to want to ship their folks 20, 30 miles. My thinking is that we don't need to be doing any terribly expensive construction projects which might actually turn out to be temporary."

Q. School choice is another topic that has come up, and the possibility of allowing parents to send their children to schools outside their neighborhoods. What do you think about that option?

A. "I think that each request ought to be considered individually with compassion for the parents' employment and the children's reasons for wanting to transfer. I don't think it ought to be an automatic thing ... I think there should be a reason for it rather than just personal preference."

Q. Traditionally, Chester County schools' test scores haven't been the best. What's a key element to improving education and changing those marks?

A. "Well, first of all, we have to make sure we keep and get excellent teachers. We have some excellent teachers on board this time and we need to make sure we keep them through whatever incentives we have to do. ... We need to have a good recruitment program to bring new excellent teachers in when the need arises. ... We need to encourage our children. I've seen it over and over and over: Youngsters who turn out to have an opportunity to go to school, and they unfortunately don't have the grades to go because they didn't try or weren't motivated in the early grades. And by the time they realize they have an opportunity to go to school through various scholarships or grants or things, it's too late for them to bring the grades up. And they wasted a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So I think motivation and encouragement for students is paramount."

Q. Is there anything in particular that you want to focus on in your new position? Is there something that you'd like to change or improve?

A. "I have no axes to grind. I don't have a pocketful of slips of things I want to change. You have to remember that I'm green at this and I don't really know yet the things that need to be improved on or changed. I'm going to have to listen to the experienced board members and learn some things from them."

Q. What prompted you to run?

A. "I looked at the fact that there was only one person running. ... I just felt like the people needed to have a choice of more than one person. I think that I can do a good job. .... All these school board members are giving their time without pay or anything else, no kind of incentives, to help the county and the children. And I wanted to be part of that."