Tupelo may vote on tuition guarantee plan

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A plan that would pay university tuition costs for Tupelo High School graduates who live in the city could come before city voters in May.
The plan, currently called Tupelo Promise, would be funded by a 5-mill property tax increase. That would be about $75 per year for a $150,000 house, Tupelo mayor Jack Reed Jr. said on Sunday.
The plan could be included on the May 3 election for Phase 5 of the Major Thoroughfare Program, said MTP committee chairman Greg Pirkle, who supports the concept.
At its regular meeting today, the Major Thoroughfare Committee will discuss whether to recommend adding the Tupelo Promise program to that election. It would also need City Council approval.
The Tupelo Promise program is an idea that Reed has proposed as part of an effort to retain and expand the city’s middle class. The full details have not yet been developed, but it would cover the cost of tuition for THS graduates who live in Tupelo to any Mississippi public university.
There would likely be some requirement that students had to remain in Tupelo Public Schools for a certain number of years to get their full tuition funded.
The idea is based on a program in Kalamazoo, Mich. In that program, students who begin in the system in kindergarten receive 100 percent of tuition costs after graduating from high school, Reed said. Others are prorated depending on how many years they spent in the system, with those who started in ninth grade being funded at 65 percent. Tupelo could follow that model or choose its own.
Reed said the program may also be enacted quickly enough to cover students already enrolled at Tupelo High School who have been in the system for years, although that has not yet been definitively determined.
“This would be something that would really set Tupelo apart, and would be a real game changer, and perhaps make Tupelo that exception of cities that didn’t just succumb to a middle-class exodus,” Reed said.
The mayor said the idea has been pitched to several young families, who were enthusiastic about it.
Because the City Council has already established a March 1 public hearing for the May 3 election on the MTP, the thoroughfare committee had to recommend that this issue be added to the same election, Pirkle said. That would prevent the city from having two separate special elections.
“I think the main way the Thoroughfare Committee can help is with the timing,” Pirkle said. “If we want to do it so the families can enroll in the school system in the fall semester, it needs to be voted on as quickly as it can. The only way to get it on the ballot in May is to include it as one of our priorities, and we want to be as helpful as we can.”
Pirkle said that he would support adding the tuition program to the ballot as an incentive for students to stay or return to Tupelo Public Schools, although he said that he would also want to see the school district improve its discipline program.
“I would certainly support it,” Pirkle said. “I do believe the thoroughfares are critical to our economic success. I also believe that healthy public schools are equally vital to the success of the community.
“This is a direct response to the problem we have in the public schools. It is very clear, it is well defined and there is nothing that has to be determined in the future.”
The Major Thoroughfare Program has used a special voter-approved tax levy to improve Tupelo’s major roads since 1991. The next five-year phase must be approved by voters.
The Thoroughfare Committee will still ask for a 10-mill tax levy for Phase 5, Pirkle said, with the Tupelo Promise program consisting of a separate 5 mills.
The council could also determine whether voters will weigh in on the two issues together or separately on the May 3 election.
The Tupelo Promise program emerged from ideas Reed has studied for his All America City Plan, a plan to revitalize Tupelo’s neighborhoods and middle class.
Reed had previously proposed reducing the MTP to five mills and using its other five mills to help fund his All America City Plan.
However, he said that if the City Council prefers an initiative that would keep the MTP at 10 mills and add an additional 5 mill-levy for the tuition program, he would respect that, too.
“I’m excited to see my friend Greg Pirkle get behind Tupelo Promise,” Reed said. “It is ultimately the City Council’s decision on how the referendum is defined.”
Reed said that of several proposed ideas as part of the All America City Plan, the tuition guarantee, “seemed to be the most dramatic one and the one that is catching the most people’s attention.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.