OPINION: Toyota funding comes at much-needed time

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

A nice break from the news of budget cuts came last week when the CREATE Foundation announced that Toyota would begin funding a promised $50 million endowment for eight Northeast Mississippi school districts.
The automaker will make its first $5 million payment in May to an education endowment for school districts in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties – Union County, New Albany, Pontotoc County, Pontotoc City, Tupelo, Lee County, Baldwyn and Nettleton.
The counties make up the PUL Alliance, which was instrumental in bringing Toyota to Blue Springs.
Up to $1 million will be available for spending this year, and the rest will go toward building the endowment. Toyota is expected to continue making annual $5 million contributions for the next 10 years.
In any economy, $1 million is tremendous. But for the school districts, this money comes at a time when Gov. Haley Barbour has already cut the state’s funding to schools by 5 percent.
As the Legislature begins its 2010 session, there are fears those cuts could become even deeper.
An advisory committee created to study how to spend the money said last week that the first project will be a curriculum audit for all eight districts.
Outside experts from Phi Delta Kappa, a professional education association from Indiana, will study the school’s curriculum and observe what teachers are teaching.
They’ll compare that to what is being tested on state assessments and to a list of 53 things that can improve every student’s performance level. Each school will get a report on their strengths and areas where they can improve.
Many superintendents wouldn’t be able to fund the audits, which will cost an average of just under $35,000 each, were it not for this money.
“This opportunity is something we would not have been able to provide,” said Adam Pugh, Pontotoc City Schools superintendent. “It allows us to provide a better quality of education for our students.”
The timing of the audits is also important, because they come just as the Mississippi Department of Education has raised its standards.
Schools are now ranked according to student performance based on national norms, as opposed to state averages. Under the new system, schools will need even better scores on state assessments to attain high rankings over the next few years, making it even more challenging for schools to perform well.
Thus, this audit will help schools study how well they are teaching to the new standards and where they can improve. And it will reveal how they can most efficiently do so while budgets are being cut.
“Our district is rich in programs, but with funding tight, we will be better able to direct where our funds go,” Lee County Superintendent Mike Scott said.

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