TUPELO — The road toward the Tupelo Public School District’s latest bond referendum began with a request district officials made to voters 25 years earlier.
In 1990, 87 percent of those voters supported an appeal to issue $17 million in new bonds. At the time, it was the largest single bond issue for local education facilities to be passed in the state’s history.
Those funds were used to build Tupelo High School and its football stadium, as well as new classrooms, media centers and activity/PE buildings at most elementary schools. Their passage set a new tone across the state, said Richard Thompson, who served as Tupelo’s superintendent at the time.
“There was not a good history,” said Thompson, who now serves as executive director of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. “A lot of bonds had been on the ballot and lost across the state.
“To me, it was a breakthrough point in Mississippi. Other people in Mississippi said we can do this. I thought it was bigger than Tupelo, even though it was a tremendous victory for the students.”
The school district will attempt to muster that same support again this year, seeking $44 million in new bonds it would use to upgrade older buildings, add safety and energy-efficiency features and purchase new school buses and technology. Voters will decide the issue on April 28.
This appeal will be the district’s fifth bond request since 1981 and first in 16 years. Each of the previous four was successful. This will be the first one that does not seek a tax increase, since the borrowed funds would replace old bonds that expire this year.
A 20-member citizen committee formed to advocate for the current bond appeal has spent much time learning from those past efforts, said co-chairmen Amy Tate and Mike Clayborne.
The key, they said, is involving stakeholders and being transparent about how the funds will be spent. To that end, the committee has launched a website, safeandsoundbond.com.
“In the past, we’ve done a pretty good job of helping the community understand what the needs are and why it is important to support the bond issue,” Clayborne said. “From that perspective, it is really not a lot different than in the past.
“The needs we have are pretty critical needs, and the money has to come from somewhere. There is no indication we are going to get any significant money from the state.”
Before the breakthrough 1990 election, Tupelo passed two small bonds in the 1980s. In 1981, 91 percent of voters supported a $2.6 million issue to rebuild the west wing of Milam School, which had been destroyed by a fire the previous fall, as well as to make repairs at other schools.
Four years later, 90 percent supported a $2 million request to construct a new science building at the high school (the current middle school), add 14 new kindergarten rooms and buy 268 window-unit air conditioners.
In 1990, Thompson said, the important thing was having a plan to involve the community. Business leaders raised about $25,000 to fund advertisements, and each of the district’s principals participated in the “boots on the ground” effort.
“There was no magic there,” he said. “The magic was the hard work everyone did. It was coming together and saying this is important for our whole community.”
The most recent bond request came in 1999 when 69 percent of voters approved $29.5 million that funded the construction of Parkway and Lawndale Elementary schools. That money also was used for the extensive renovation of Carver School, work on multiple campuses and the construction of a ninth-grade building, performing arts center and career-technical center at Tupelo High.
Although the 1999 request easily passed, the vote was tighter than the previous three elections, which each had about 90-percent support. It is hard to say why that was the case, said Lewis Whitfield, who was co-chairman of the committee formed to support it.
“There was no organized opposition,” Whitfield said. “I think a lot of people saw there was a lot of support and thought it would pass easily and simply did not vote for it.”
That is a lesson for this year’s committee, Clayborne said. With a quick turnaround on the election, they are focusing their efforts on mobilizing the base — parents, teachers, school staff — to cast its ballots.
“You can’t be complacent,” Clayborne said. “For those people who understand how important the public schools are to the future of our community, including their property values and the viability of the community, they need to go vote and not take for granted that this is going to pass because we’ve always passed bond issues in Tupelo.”
The committee is meeting will meet with civic groups and school organizations, Tate said, and is seeking dates to hold a town hall meeting.
“No matter what we’re going to do with it or how badly it is needed, $44 million is a lot of money, and we want every citizen to have the opportunity to ask questions and understand how the decisions were made,” she said. “This is our people’s money, and they should understand how it’s to be used.”
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