By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Education topped the list of concerns cited by Northeast Mississippians at an “Ideas Tour” stop Tuesday at City Hall.
Led by state Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, the tour gave residents a platform to share their concerns and ideas for the Legislature to tackle when it convenes in January.
Fourteen other House and Senate members from the region joined Gunn at the Tupelo stop. More than 100 residents packed Tupelo’s City Council chambers in which the forum was held. Those who wished to speak raised a hand and had five minutes when Gunn called on them.
“We need full funding of MAEP and early childhood education,” said Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr., who started what would become a litany of comments about education.
Of the nearly three dozen people who spoke, more than 20 cited education-related concerns ranging from the state’s repeated failure to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to its recent interest in charter schools.
Many speaking about charter schools either opposed them or urged legislators to carefully consider the pitfalls.
“There are good intentions behind the charter schools, but … we’ll have dual public school systems in the state with two sets of regulations,” said former Tupelo Schools Superintendent Randy McCoy.
A few others, like Grant Sowell of Tupelo, support charter schools, saying parents should have a choice.
Two people urged lawmakers to better fund higher education, particularly junior colleges and infrastructure.
One said it’s time to let county school boards hire superintendents instead of letting voters pick.
Illegal immigration also garnered some attention, with two participants urging a crackdown on undocumented workers and one calling for compassion.
“I have worked with them for 20 years and speak Spanish,” said the Rev. Gerald Peterson of Pontotoc. “They’re contributing more than they’re taking.”
Legislators listened to constituents but didn’t speak; Gunn said the forum wasn’t a political event but an opportunity to hear from the people. As the lawmakers listened, many took notes and nodded.
Among the most moving comments came from Johnnie Hall of the Alpine community, who asked for an attempted murder law with an appropriate punishment to fit the crime. No such criminal charge currently exists in Mississippi; felony aggravated assault comes closest.
Hall told how on Dec. 6, 1976, her husband was shot and beaten by a man imprisoned just 16 months for the crime. The incident left her husband blind, mute and incapacitated.
“There’s so much that needs to be addressed in the Legislature about changing this to include attempted murder,” Hall said, “possibly with a mandatory sentence of years.”
Gunn called the meeting a success. It was the fourth of nine planned in the state this week. Gunn said similar concerns had been cited at the previous forums with health care and education among the main concerns.