For some, Tupelo plan hinges on school district

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A $15.7 million city revitalization plan could stall unless Tupelo school officials meet with the City Council and offer solutions to their district’s rapidly intensifying problems.
But the council’s attempts to meet with the Tupelo school board so far has proved unsuccessful.
“The school board seems to have turned a deaf ear to the council,” said Ward 4 City Councilwoman Nettie Davis, who is a former school teacher in the district.
Davis made the remarks during a work session Thursday at City Hall. The council had met to discuss whether Tupelo could afford a proposed neighborhood revitalization plan.
The four-part initiative aims to retain and attract families – especially middle-class families – after a decade of stagnant population growth.
After a financial presentation by the city’s Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris, most council members said they believe Tupelo can afford the plan. But some questioned whether the city should implement it while the school district faces serious challenges.
“I’m not going to approve any of these strategies until the school board is involved,” said Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan.
Added Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell: “The plan should be on the back burner until the schools fix their problems.”
The council has tried to meet several times with the school board but got no response, said council President Fred Pitts. He hoped to set a meeting soon with the help of Mayor Jack Reed Jr.
Tupelo’s five public school board members are nominated by the mayor and appointed by the council.
School board President Amy Heyer could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday night.
Once considered among the best in Mississippi, the Tupelo school district now sits on state academic watch and faces a growing public outcry for its alleged discipline problems.
The situation escalated this week after school officials decided to remove longtime Tupelo educator Lee Stratton as principal of the high school and replace him with an outside hire.
Some council members have blamed city schools for driving middle-class families from Tupelo in search of better educational opportunities for their children. They say revitalizing neighborhoods won’t retain or attract middle-class residents; only an improved school district can do that.
But Pitts said both the city and the school district must take action. Neither can wait for the other to remedy its problems before tackling its own.
“The school system won’t fix its problems overnight,” he said. “But with this plan right here, we can start fixing the city’s problems right now.”
Among its recommendations: a low-interest loan program to help homebuyers with down payments; stronger code enforcement funded by higher landlord permit fees; a matching grant for homeowners improving their properties; and a program to pay college tuition for graduating high school students.
Bryan said he wants to vote on the plan’s components separately, because he opposes the tuition guarantee and the loan program. Pitts said the plan requires all four aspects to combat middle-class decline.
If you separate them, he said, “you can kiss Tupelo goodbye.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.