When the committee voted Monday to adopt its priorities for Phase 5 of the Major Thoroughfare Program, it did not include the plan that would have paid for Tupelo High graduates who live in Tupelo to attend a four-year public Mississippi university.
The committee's unanimous vote came after City Council members Markel Whittington, Jim Newell and Mike Bryan said that planning for the tuition guarantee program was ongoing and that the plan was not yet ready for a public vote.
Committee members said they did not want to delay the MTP election until details for the tuition guarantee had been finalized.
"I would have liked for us to have been able to participate in helping the city in any way we can," said committee chairman Greg Pirkle. "Once we were informed that we would have to possibly delay the election, that presented significant problems for the thoroughfare program. We need to have that program under construction before October to keep federal and state funds that have been allocated to us."
Bryan said after the meeting that he believed the city still needed to discuss the tuition guarantee and other programs that would revitalize Tupelo's middle class and, by extension, its public schools.
"It should not be a dead issue," Bryan said. "There is a problem in the city of Tupelo that many are aware of with middle-income residents staying in Tupelo. You can't just blame it on the school or any one thing. To correct it, we will need to correct a little piece of everything and see it fit into place."
The Major Thoroughfare Program is a special voter-approved tax levy that has funded large-scale road improvements in the city since 1991. The committee voted Monday to recommend keeping that levy at 10 mills, which would provide about $20 million over five years for such projects as the five-laning of sections of East Main Street, South Gloster and Eason Boulevard and adding right turn lanes to North Gloster near the mall.
Committee member Betty Wood said that even though the thoroughfare committee would not have administered the tuition-guarantee program, she believed that voters would have been confused if both issues were on the same ballot.
"We should not be involved in that," Wood said. "We should do what has been done for the last 20 years and take 10 mills of these taxes and do the best job we can with the roads that need improvement."
Pirkle had proposed adding an initiative to the May 3 election that would have allowed voters to approve a 5-mill property tax increase in order to fund the tuition guarantee program. That would have resulted in about a $75 annual increase on a $150,000 house.
Because a public hearing has already been called for the May 3 MTP election, the only way for the tuition guarantee program to be added to that election would have been with the committee's approval.
The idea for tuition guarantee, known as Tupelo Promise, is one of five ideas proposed by Mayor Jack Reed Jr. as part of a sweeping plan to revitalize Tupelo's middle class.
While efforts on that plan remain, funding isn't certain. The city can hold a separate special election for the 5-mill tuition plan, as well as other elements of the overall proposal, at a later date.
Reed could not be reached for comment after the thoroughfare committee vote.
"The point of it is that this is one of the tools in the toolbox that could be used to help us just not accept what some people say is inevitable, which is the exodus of the middle class from Tupelo," Reed said earlier in the day.
Tupelo Promise is a post-secondary tuition guarantee program for students graduating from the Tupelo Public School District. The city would pay 100 percent tuition costs to any public college or university in Mississippi for students who have attended city schools since kindergarten.
After that, aid would be prorated depending on how many years a child attended school in the district, with the minimum requirement being four years in high school.
It's modeled after a program in Kalamazoo, Mich., called the Kalamazoo Promise, which is funded solely through anonymous private donations. The Tupelo Promise would have come from a 5-mill property tax assessment, which currently generates about $2 million annually.
According to numbers provided by the Community Development Foundation, it would take an estimated $2.5 million to fully fund the Tupelo Promise program each year. It's unclear now where the additional money would come from.
The program would be in addition to ongoing tuition guarantee efforts currently in place, including the Lee County Marchbanks Helping Hands Tuition Assistance Guarantee, which covers community college costs for high school graduates living in Lee County after they've exhausted all other funding avenues.
Tupelo High School graduated about 360 students last year, and about half continued their education at post-secondary schools.
Some 600 students are expected to qualify for the program at full or partial funding levels at the five-year mark, according to CDF data.
Other components of the mayor's All America City Plan include the creation of a $10 million residential home loan program to supplement bank mortgages for Tupelo home buyers; a temporary moratorium on federal housing subsidies in the city; the hiring of two additional municipal code officers to crack down on blight; and the original All America City Plan, which would spend $14 million to revitalize aging neighborhoods.
CDF President and CEO David Rumbarger said his team provided data input and policy guidance to the mayor in creating the plan but that his board hasn't formally endorsed the plan. It could do so, however, at its Feb. 21 meeting.
City Council members Jonny Davis and Fred Pitts were not at the thoroughfare committee meeting but said earlier in the day that they supported the Tupelo Promise program.
"I thought it was a fantastic idea," Pitts said. "I think it sets us apart from other cities. It would be a godsend for a majority of families in Tupelo."
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or email@example.com. Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.