This is the first in a weekly series of stories leading up to Lakeland’s historic bond vote for the local school system. Both sides of the vote are invited to volunteer comments and photos for upcoming stories.
Few issues will galvanize a community as much as money and education do. The Lakeland School System has broad community support, but it has inspired sharply divided opinions since its formation: Does it need to exist? Can the city afford it? Is immediate expansion needed?
The majority of Lakeland residents gave a strong “Yes” to the first question. City and school district leaders, their consultants and a significant portion of the residents say “yes” to the remaining two as well. But a vocal group of citizen activists have questioned the cost to taxpayers and the urgency to build.
A citywide referendum on April 16 will at least decide one of the major funding issues: Will the $50 million general obligation bond issuance get enough community support? Early voting starts this Friday.
While waiting to hit the polls, both the “Vote yes” and “Vote no” sides have been distributing fliers, posting on Facebook and websites and going on door-to-door campaigns to convince voters what’s right for Lakeland’s students.
With so many strong-minded people so passionately engaged, it’s not surprising that feelings get frayed and rumors take wing. Sometimes the central issues get shunted aside, and it becomes a clash of personalities.
Rumors fly, and sometimes they don’t fly straight. Word went around Lakeland last week that Lakeland Elementary School might change its before- and after-school childcare services (which are designed to help working parents sync the school’s schedule better with their work schedules).
That program is parent-funded, and the YMCA is the vendor who provides this service on campus. Superintendent Ted Horrell clarified that he is considering bringing that service in-house.
Somehow, that morphed into speculation that the school might become a “babysitting service.” Then former Lakeland mayor Jim Bomprezzi Sr. commented on social media that mothers should stay home and take care of their babies. He also questioned how many mothers and fathers prepare and enjoy a prayer and then a home-cooked meal with their children.
A number of mothers were deeply offended, saying he questioned their family’s priorities and even their faith.
Among his remarks, Bomprezzi posted, “Stay with your children, tighten your budget, and stop all the entertainment while leaving the babies with a babysitter. God blessed you with your children, so be responsible and give them some time now, as it won’t be long and they will be leaving you.”
Alexa Tutor of Lakeland said, “I think all three of us here feel so strongly about our faith, so for it to be questioned that we don’t pray with our children, that those things are not a priority for us because we work, it’s hard. It’s hard to hear.”
Assuming that children are not cared for or well guided just because childcare is used — or that parents are using school childcare programs to frolic at the mall or other entertainments — is condescending, insulting and uninformed, according to the mothers questioned.
Tutor also believes it hurts Lakeland’s image, especially as it is trying to attract young families.
Katie Autry of Lakeland commented that 70 percent of women who have children are a part of the workforce.
She added, “It truly is the day and time we live in. So it feels a little out of touch.”
She explained her surprise that he would publicly post such a divisive viewpoint. “He’s a former mayor. He’s a very vocal member of the community, and he knows that he can reach a lot of people.”
Katie Autry, also of Lakeland, questioned why working parents and childcare are part of the discussion. She named her viewpoint’s top priority: Passing the bond and moving the school forward.
Lauren Lemmons agreed, saying that development is anticipated around the new school. “We are ready to make this city prosper.”
All three women work outside the home. Although they don’t use the LES program themselves, they appreciate that it’s there and know that it helps many families.
On Tuesday, Bomprezzi responded to the mothers’ criticisms, saying that he respects and understands that families have children and many parents have to work. He denied that he is in anyway opposed to women working.
“I have only supported children, and given reasons why many children get in trouble,” Bomprezzi said. “My expertise in this area is due to my previous employment as a police investigator, investigating missing children, physically and sexually abused and neglected children, and exploited children. Lack of parental involvement and attention were identified as major contributing factors as my investigations progressed.”
He said the purpose of his original Facebook post was to oppose childcare provided by Lakeland School System and funded by taxpayers.
Bomprezzi said, in part, “Government and the Lakeland School System and school board members, in my opinion, should not in any way subsidize childcare, essentially abdicating Mom and Dad’s responsibilities in a child’s early development.”
Note: Parents currently pay fees to participate in the Lakeland Elementary before- and after-school program, and there have been no announced plans to change that.
Because Bomprezzi has been a vocal opponent to the cost of a local school district since before it formed, some citizens view him now as the ring leader of the “vote no” crew. And when he draws lightning with his remarks, that lightning also scorches the “Vote no” group he supports.
Tutor, Autry and Lemmons, for example, said their impression was that he’s the leader of that group, although “Vote no” core organizers say he just shares their views.
Bomprezzi himself said Tuesday that he is not a behind-the-scenes strategist. He said he is a 35-year Lakeland resident who has posted and written editorials at the public’s request. He advised the Lakeland voters who approached him that they could use his background data if they wanted to pursue a grassroots movement.
“It just took off from there,” Bomprezzi said. “I am ‘me,’ working alone for the cause. Many others are grassroots voters working for the same cause.”
He emphasized, “When I speak, I speak for only one person — that person is me. I am not a leader of the ‘Vote no’ movement. I see myself as nothing more than a Lakeland citizen with my opinions and my views and research, and I have not and do not speak for anyone but Jim Bomprezzi. Those who disagree with me have that right. Those that believe in me have that right.”
He remains convinced that there never should have been a Lakeland district, pointing to Arlington’s top-notch schools and their recently stated willingness to negotiate a 15-year contract with Lakeland. The move to spend $50 million on new construction while the district’s first year is still in progress makes no sense to him.
“Lakeland cannot afford a $50 million bond debt,” he said. “Lakeland is the only city in Shelby County without a legislatively mandated debt ceiling, and that is absolutely risky. Why risk bankruptcy?”
Members of the “Vote Yes” group disagree. Lemmons, who is solidly in that camp, said, “We know that the building of this school is going to bring economic development, it’s going to increase property values.”
Tutor said, “It’s going to be a catalyst.”
Just talk about Lakeland schools is already bringing in families, Tutor said.
Lemmons, a new Lakeland resident, added, “It brought my family in.” She said that a good school system is the number one question that potential new residents ask when looking at a new place to live.
Bomprezzi was at the heart of another online rumor in recent months. Social media speculation about previous Lakeland city administrations stunting the city’s economic and educational system growth (sometimes mentioning Bomprezzi’s administration by name) are not true, he said Tuesday.
He tried, he said. Bomprezzi said community members balked at anticipated rises in traffic when he, vice mayor Nina Griffin and commissioner John Wilkerson pulled together arrangements for Lakeland to have more schools, a Sheriff’s station, a Tennessee Visitors Welcome Center and an Elvis Presley Museum with 13 gold records as an interstate tourist attraction.
“Lakeland Citizens complained, resulting in all the schools and facilities being built in Arlington,” Bomprezzi said.
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to email@example.com.