EDITORIAL: Endowment ahead

By Joe Rutherford

Further strong indications of Toyota’s commitment to its investment in Northeast Mississippi were confirmed this week by the CREATE Foundation, which will manage and invest Toyota’s 10-year annual payment of $5 million, starting in May, for upgrading education in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties – the governmental entities comprising the PUL Alliance.
Toyota, separate from its agreement with the state to build an assembly plant at Blue Springs, awed an announcement day audience in February 2007 when it pledged $50 million for the long-term benefit of the school districts in the PUL counties. The payment was to start this year regardless of production at the Blue Springs plant, which is on hold pending a nationwide economic rebound.
Internet rumors that Toyota has backed out of the education endowment commitment are uninformed and without foundation.
In addition, in April, Toyota will make an approximate $9 million payment on bond interest, a commitment that would have been made from cash flow generated at the Blue Springs plant had production started on schedule. The interest payment date was agreed to when Toyota announced in 2008 that it would delay production indefinitely because of the nationwide recession.
The state, as with previous industrial megaprojects, made a major investment as part of the Toyota package. The $293 million commitment for site preparation and infrastructure is bonded debt with a long-term payout.
A high-level company official said earlier this year Blue Springs production would begin when the American automobile market and economy have recovered.
The education endowment is designed to total $50 million at the end of the 10-year payout, with a $1 million investment in education enhancement set for the first four years, with the balance invested for growth. CREATE Foundation President Mike Clayborne said an investment plan has been adopted to ensure that the endowment totals $50 million by 2020, as Toyota directed.
An advisory group with members representing the PUL Alliance counties, Toyota, CREATE Foundation’s board of directors, and the Mississippi Department of Education (the sitting state superintendent) will recommend expenditure priorities for the school districts, with approval finalized by the CREATE board. Already approved are curriculum audits for the eight districts, costing $300,000, which will identify areas for academic improvement.
A $50 million endowment for public schools provided by the private sector is extraordinary, and Toyota has not backed away from it despite a sales decline and a highly publicized safety recall.
The potential academic benefit for all the schools in the PUL Alliance region is unprecedented in the history of our state.