Tupelo leaders react to school rankings

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Recent state data ranking Tupelo schools behind their suburban peers reinforces the city’s need to bolster its middle-income population, said Mayor Jack Reed Jr.
“This is evidence we’ve got some work to do,” Reed said about the results on Friday. “Tupelo has got to boldly act to attract the families with school-aged children that are finding the suburbs attractive now, and at the same time Tupelo has to do all we can to support our students and our teachers here.”
The Mississippi Department of Education released statewide rankings last week for all public school districts. Tupelo remained on Academic Watch, while Lee County ranked Successful.
Lee County’s district includes schools in the fast-growing suburbs of Saltillo, Guntown and Mooreville, all of which have attracted families from Tupelo in recent years.
A less than 1 percent population growth in Northeast Mississippi’s largest city this past decade prompted Tupelo leaders to consider adopting a bold series of measures to lure back families suspected of having fled to the suburbs. But the initiative lost steam and has sat untouched for several weeks.
Among the reasons it failed to pass was the belief of many City Council members that the school system bore the blame of driving away families. Until it fixed its problems, they said, the city could do nothing to attract well-educated, middle-income families.
Many of those council members cite last week’s rankings as evidence of that belief.
“Tupelo’s on Academic Watch and Saltillo wins a National Blue Ribbon Award,” said Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell. “To me, that just explains it. If we don’t improve our academic rating, whatever approach we take, it’s not going to be successful – not when our surrounding school systems are improving, and we’re on Academic Watch.”
The U.S. Department of Education released its list of Blue Ribbon schools last week, and Saltillo High School was among them. It also earned a High Performing rank from the state. Tupelo High School this year earned a Successful rank, up from its previous Academic Watch.
Schools and districts are ranked individually.
Reed congratulated Saltillo on its recent award but said it doesn’t reflect poorly on Tupelo’s schools. He also said it will take time for the city’s district to climb in the rankings and that it’s on the right track.
Most council members, including Newell and Ward 4′s Nettie Davis agreed. And they wholeheartedly offered support to the schools as they strive to close the achievement gap. But they said they’re limited on what they can do.
“It’s important the school board and the City Council work closely together,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington. But, “there’s a fine line between what the state will allow us to do.”
The council approves the mayor’s appointments to the Tupelo Public School District Board of Trustees. Otherwise, it has no influence on board decisions or the school district as a whole.
Schools and cities are closely linked, according to a Daily Journal analysis of academic rankings, ad valorem taxes, racial composition and other factors. As school performance declines, municipal taxes and minority population increases.
Tupelo’s minority population in both its schools and its city has increased over the years. Its taxes have remained relatively stable.
But Whittington said he worries about the tax rate and the school-city link. He said Tupelo made a good first step this year by approving a capital project plan setting aside $3 million for neighborhood improvements.
The council still must fund the plan, however. Reed said he hopes that happens at the start of the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
So does council President Fred Pitts, who said Tupelo schools continue to offer a first-class education despite their state ranking.
“I don’t think the (ranking) hurt anything,” he said, “but … we have to work together as a city and the school system to get people to move back to Tupelo.”