Aging buildings

Analysis: High maintenance costs drive latest proposed school closings in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
School lets out last week at Goodlett Elementary, an overcrowded school built in 1964. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to replace Goodlett with a new building under his latest facilities plan.

Goodlett Elementary School needs a new boiler. It needs a new roof too, just a few of the costly upgrades on a long list of maintenance needs totaling about $4 million.

In fact, according to data released in May, the southeast Memphis school, built in 1964, is the least efficient building in Shelby County Schools, making it long overdue for district leaders to step in.

Last week, they did, as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson unveiled a proposal to build a new Goodlett, along with new buildings for Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle. The construction would be part of a significant overhaul that would close seven schools, some of whose students would be shifted to the new buildings.

Hopson told school board members last Wednesday that costly maintenance issues were the key driver in his first volley at addressing the district’s aging and bloated facilities footprint, which needs to shed up to 24 schools in the next five years.

That’s contrary to his earlier pledge to focus on improving academics when making such decisions, putting enrollment and aging buildings as secondary considerations.

Hopson argues that this first volley isn’t part of the bigger discussion to come about closing schools, which will focus primarily on academics. “These are schools where you have some of the highest (maintenance needs) in the city and where it’s just inefficient to operate these schools,” he said.

Of the three construction/consolidation projects proposed by Hopson, Goodlett is the outlier. It’s mostly about the high cost of building maintenance, while the other two projects are more aligned with all three criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to rejigger its schools: academics, under-enrollment and maintenance.

Under Hopson’s plan, the new Goodlett Elementary would open as early as 2018 and would absorb students from Knight Road Elementary, along with some from Sheffield and Getwell. Current buildings for Goodlett and Knight Road would be demolished.

While neither Goodlett or Knight Road have a glowing academic performance, both schools are not in danger of state takeover like about a dozen others in the city. In 2014, Goodlett was even recognized by the state as a “reward school” for academic growth.

Instead of being under-enrolled, Goodlett and Knight Road are overcrowded, with nearly twice as many students as the buildings were designed for. Knight Road, built in 1959, also needs a lot of work. It’s ranked the district’s eighth least efficient building.

By contrast, Woodstock, which would be rebuilt and reconfigured into a K-12 school in rural northwest Memphis, is in danger of state takeover because of poor student test scores. It’s severely under-enrolled and needs maintenance work, though it’s not considered among the district’s most inefficient buildings.

With its new building, Woodstock would take in students from Lucy and Northaven elementary schools. Northaven is in danger of dropping to the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state and is also under-enrolled. It has about $2.2 million in deferred maintenance needs. Lucy is also a low-performing school, though not low enough to provoke state intervention. It is under-enrolled as well, with $2.2 million worth of deferred maintenance.

Alcy, which would be rebuilt on the same property, is a low-performing school in danger of state takeover. It’s under-enrolled and has high building needs.

Under the Alcy consolidation, Hopson proposes to close Magnolia and Charjean elementary schools and move those students to Alcy’s new building as early as 2018. Magnolia is a low-performing school that’s under-enrolled and has relatively low building needs. Charjean is overcrowded, but rose to the level of urgency because of its high maintenance needs totaling $3.3 million. The 1950 school building ranks third in the district in inefficiency.

Hopson says his building proposals would make investments in communities that have been neglected for decades.

“We’ve got to start thinking about equity here in Memphis. And if you look at these communities, these are places where nobody has invested in a very long time,” he said. “Given the enrollment and conditions of the facilities, we want to move forward.”

But the proposals aren’t a done deal. The school board will review them at its Nov. 29 work session, and members will cast their first of two votes on the school closures Dec. 6. Several community meetings would follow. Hopson hopes to take the plans to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in December to ask for $15 million for each new school.

Picking his two children up from school last week at Goodlett Elementary, parent Jeremy Arris said his kids haven’t complained about the condition of their school building or overcrowding. He’s happy with the teachers and culture. And he’s OK with Hopson’s plan too, especially since his children wouldn’t have to move while a new school is being built.

“It’s fine with me,” Arris said. “I don’t want to send my kids anywhere else.”

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 

Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.

Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”

You can view the district’s full presentation from Monday night below: