The Tupelo Public School District opens itself Tuesday at a public hearing to questions and criticisms of the proposed 2003-2004 budget, which contains a 0.62 mill property tax increase.

We believe it important to ask, "Is the proposed increase enough to fully fund essential needs in Tupelo's schools?"

The proposed budget, prepared by the district's administrators and financial officers, doesn't ask for the maximum 4 percent revenue increase allowed under state law without a public referendum. The schools' leadership, sensitive to higher tax increases required in recent years, chose a conservative tax levy.

However, the proposed budget doesn't include funds for instructional needs and transportation items that some consider essential.

For example, the budget won't pay for a full Total Textbook Plan that every year would place the most current textbooks in every subject in students' hands. The district uses a six-year text replacement rotation, which assures usable books but not necessarily new texts simultaneous with approval by the state Department of Education.

Superintendent of Schools Randy McCoy said he agrees a full Total Textbook Plan is better than the rotation in place. Textbooks, especially in mathematics, the sciences, and technology, are sensitive to rapid changes in knowledge.

In addition, the district's financial restraint will delay the planned purchase of six new school buses, reducing the replacement to three in the coming budget year. Safety, maintenance costs, and reliability obviously must be considered in operating a system transporting thousands of students daily.

Such items are more than a wish list; they are basic. We believe those and other priorities and goals deserve community advocacy for systematic, full funding.

A school district isn't designed to function as its own advocate. That falls to the community. We believe it's time for Tupelo to respond and assure full-quality education in a difficult period.

The net .62 mill increase proposed in the administration's budget - approximately 2.5 percent - would raise taxes on a $100,000 home $6.20 per year. A 4 percent increase, the maximum allowed, would require 1.33 mills and cost about $13.20. Accounting variables figure in the totals.

The small difference in taxes paid could mean buying new buses and purchasing more new textbooks.

Applied to an extended revenue cycle and long-term plan implementation, the qualitative differences in public schools could be significant.

Tupelo's strong community support for its public schools has been a primary driver in the city's economic success through the years. That includes public investment above the norm - investment which more than pays for itself in community progress and prosperity.

The budget presented Tuesday night isn't final. The Tupelo Public School Board adopts the budget and if it's within the 4 percent cap, the City Council under law must levy the required tax millage. It is trustees' responsibility above all else to enable what's necessary for the district.

The first question is how much is needed, and that's a matter for the whole community.

To join an online discussion of this topic, log on to www.djournal.com, or respond at opinion@djournal.com for publication as a letter to the editor.

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