Local board works to keep Junior Achievement in Tupelo

TUPELO – Despite the troubles faced by Junior Achievement of Mississippi, the organization’s Tupelo arm is working to keep services available on a local level.
JA of Mississippi is facing financial difficulties and could be dissolved at Wednesday’s board meeting, said President and Chief Executive Officer Scherry Gilliland, adding that it would take a large gift to save the organization.
“A million-dollar gift would be great,” Gilliland said.
But even if the state organization does dissolve, the Tupelo Advisory Board for JA is negotiating with the national office to continue buying materials and teaching JA on a local level, said Tupelo chairman Len Blanton.
“It looks like that is going to be an option for us,” Blanton said. “We have some very dedicated volunteers and board members who would like to see that happen because it is a great opportunity to get local business people into the classroom and to give a business perspective to the kids that they might not otherwise get.”
JA of Mississippi is a nonprofit affiliated with JA Worldwide, which draws volunteers from the business community to teach economics to eighth-graders and seniors. In Lee County, the organization serves about 800 students at Tupelo Middle School, Saltillo High School and Mooreville High School, Gilliland said.
“We have a commitment to local schools to finish out the school year, and no matter what, our goal is to honor that commitment,” Blanton said.
The news comes after JA of Mississippi led all national chapters in student growth during the 2008-09 school year. During that year, the organization reached 10,100 students.
“I think it is an outstanding program,” Tupelo Middle School Principal Linda Clifton said. “I think the most valuable piece is the community representatives that come in and work with our children. It is one of the most valuable things we do.”
Blanton, who is a member of the JA of Mississippi board, said it may not take $1 million to save the organization, but it would likely take a six-figure donation. The organization has been in financial difficulties for several years because of the debt it owes on its building at 1695 High St. in Jackson. Those difficulties were compounded when corporate donations decreased significantly during the current economic downturn. Gilliland said some companies decreased their donations by 40 or 50 percent.
Besides paying for the building and its upkeep, the organization’s largest expense is purchasing instructional materials from JA Worldwide. And the decrease in funding came at the same time the organization was rapidly expanding the number of students it reached. That number increased by 86.8 percent from 2007-08, when the organization reached 5,407 students.
The organization largely relies on private donations.
“Our funding has been a challenge for several years,” said David Barrentine, chairman of the board of JA of Mississippi. “The severity of the decline, particularly in the second and third quarters of 2009, may have been surprising.”
Barrentine added that the organization will consider all options to restructure at the Nov. 18 meeting.
“It saddens me that there is a possibility of it going away,” said Chris Stevenson, government and economics teacher at Saltillo High School. “I can find another textbook to use as a model, but it would be hard to find one to replace JA. The guest speakers really supplement what we’re able to teach.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal