By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – A city program that gave at-risk youths a summer job could lose funding in the second year.
During budget talks last week, Tupelo leaders debated the merits of the $35,000 Plant A Seed program and whether taxpayers should foot the bill.
“To me this was an additional expense this past year,” said Ward 3 City Councilman Jim Newell. “We’re cutting staff. We’re cutting part-time employees. We’re cutting hours. But yet still we want to budget for this program again next year?”
Twenty teens worked for the city from early June through late July, learning skills and receiving mentoring from department heads and other full-time employees. At the end of the eight-week session, the youth earned certificates from the mayor and were told the experience would help them with future job opportunities.
It was hailed a success by the teens, their parents, department heads and other city officials, including Mayor Jack Reed Jr.
“This program is a bridge over poverty program,” Reed said during the debate. “The kids who were chosen for this are not kids who could be lifeguards at the swimming pool. The city had done nothing for this group in an effort to make a difference – $35,000 in a budget of $32 million is, in my opinion, worth it to accomplish what the purpose of this program was.”
The city earlier this year began efforts to tackle poverty at Newell’s request. It recently organized a Poverty Task Force, and Reed said the Plant A Seed Program is yet another angle to attack the problem.
But Newell said Tupelo can help disadvantaged youth without funding a new program. It can instead incorporate mentoring into its regular summer jobs program, where roughly 100 teens from across the region work for the Parks and Recreation Department as lifeguards, grounds keepers or in other functions.
Newell also suggested the city limit those positions to Tupelo residents only.
It’s unlikely that strategy would work, said City Clerk Kim Hanna. Those positions are critical to Tupelo’s summer operations and require nonstop work. By contrast, teens in the mentoring program receive daily guidance and attend workshops during their eight-week stint.
“These kids weren’t just hired and put out there and forgotten about,” said council President Fred Pitts. “These kids were talked to and instructed on how to dress, how to present themselves and were watched and helped and mentored to know what’s expected of them.”
The program was conceived and organized by Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings, who lobbied hard for a second year’s funding through the City Council’s annual budget.
He said it’s time Tupelo reach out to its at-risk youth and that he plans to seek participation from the private sector next summer.
“If we can find more employment through other means we wouldn’t need 20 jobs in the city, but we have to take the first step,” he said. “We asked the superintendent to step down from the school, but we’re not willing to come up with a solution to the problem?”
Faced by mounting public pressure to repeated claims of discipline problems in the public schools, city leaders earlier this year called for Tupelo superintendent Randy Shaver to resign. He later asked the school board for an early release from his contract.
Newell agreed the city has a role to play in its youths’ future, but he said it can’t neglect its primary role to protect citizens and maintain infrastructure.
“Thirty-five thousand dollars is one police officer,” he said. “Just keep that in mind.”