Slowing down

Vote on Memphis school closures, construction won’t come until new year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Parents and students from Knight Road Elementary School protest a proposal that would shutter their school during a board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s proposal to build, close and consolidate schools won’t get a vote from school board members until January at the soonest.

The first vote, which could have happened as early as next week, was delayed Tuesday night after school board members agreed that more time is needed for community discussion. Hopson wants to close seven schools and build three others to consolidate students and shutter aging buildings within Shelby County Schools.

Hopson, meanwhile, urged timely action to secure funding for construction. Members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the funding agent for local schools, have expressed support of Hopson’s plan and encouraged the school board to move ahead.

Hopson called the overhaul the “first phase” of efforts to “right-size” the district based on its facilities study that has been in the works for more than a year.

Under Hopson’s proposal, the district would replace Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle while closing five elementary schools — Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven — and consolidating those students in the three new buildings. Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools also would be closed.

The superintendent was peppered with questions ranging from the cost of revamping transportation routes to the timing of community meetings.

“We need clear explanation around why certain schools were picked (for new construction) over others,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes Goodlett and Alcy schools. “That’s the No. 1 concern I’m hearing from parents: Why was this campus picked over mine?”

Hopson unveiled his plan on Nov. 16, calling it a first step in addressing quality, efficiency and equity for Memphis students and communities. He emphasized that six of the buildings he wants to close are among the 15 least efficient facilities in Shelby County Schools, while the consolidations would eliminate 2,500 empty seats in the bloated district.

“Simply closing schools and often sending our most vulnerable kids to outdated facilities does nothing to improve student achievement,” Hopson said Tuesday.


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The new timetable would include information sessions in December and January with parents and community members of all impacted schools.

“Because of the timing of the holidays, we want to make sure we get a critical mass out to those meetings,” said board member Shante Avant. “Especially since we have so many English-as-second-language learners impacted, we want to make sure we have great authentic community engagement.”

School board Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.

Hopson backed off of some elements of his proposal, particularly the rebuilding of Alcy Elementary. He said staff is working to determine if that land was the best place for the project.

The proposal drew a silent protest from about 50 parents and students from Knight Road Elementary, who held up signs urging board members not to close their school.

“Teachers told us our school would be closing,” said Sandra Perez, who brought her two children, ages 5 and 8, to the meeting. “I walk my babies to school. I can’t have them go further away. We want either our school to stay or for us to build a new school on our land.”

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

shift

Memphis school leaders pivot on messaging of long-awaited footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.

next steps

Hopson’s plan to close and build schools gets good marks from county commissioners

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners is the governing body that holds the purse strings for Shelby County Schools.

For years, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has heard the same message from Shelby County commissioners who annually review the district’s budget: The county can’t keep putting money into aging school buildings, especially in a district with a shrinking enrollment and too many buildings.

Now that Hopson has a plan to replace and consolidate some of those buildings, county commissioners are liking what they see. That’s especially important because the Shelby County Board of Commissioners holds the purse strings for new school construction.

“I think it’s a model that gives those children the best opportunity to receive an education,” Commissioner Eddie Jones told Chalkbeat. “(There’s) more resources in one building where you have all of the kids.”

Hopson’s plan — which includes closing five schools and consolidating those students into three new buildings — is precisely what commissioners have been asking the county’s largest school system to do. Commissioners like that the proposal puts a dent in the district’s 22,000 empty seats while also building schools that will last and that the community can be proud of.

But first, Hopson’s plan must get school board approval. Board members will discuss the plan’s merits on Tuesday evening, and are scheduled to cast the first of two votes on related school closures on Dec. 6. The board also will vote whether to ask the commission for money to build new schools.

The projects involve replacing Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle while closing these five elementary schools: Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven. The new construction, in part, is what makes Hopson’s proposal different from most school closures in Memphis in recent years. It also follows a model piloted with the recently reopened Westhaven Elementary School in Whitehaven.

The plan would begin with the Alcy and Goodlett consolidations. In order to start construction next summer for those two new schools, Hopson and the school board would have to go before the County Commission in December to get the needed funding — about $30 million in all.

The proposal tries to address commissioners’ concerns about closing schools in neighborhoods that have been long neglected, as well as the neighborhood blight that often follows the shuttering of a school. The hope is that crumbling school buildings would be razed to make way for new businesses.

“When you close a school … it leaves a hole in the community,” said Commissioner Heidi Shafer. “Hopson is onto something.”

Terry Roland
PHOTO: Shelby County
Terry Roland

“People continue to leave Memphis,” adds Commissioner Terry Roland. “You don’t have as many kids in the city, and the ones you do have are the poorest kids. We’ve got to reverse that. … Until we do that, you can’t leave a school with 200 or 300 kids in it.”

The district’s stockpile of under-enrolled and deteriorating buildings was a major point of contention with commissioners during last spring’s budget discussions. Some suggested that the governing body should not grant the school system’s full funding request until district leaders make significant progress in reducing its facilities footprint.

According to district data released in May, 30 district-run schools were listed under 70 percent capacity. Eleven have less than half the students that the buildings were designed for.

An analysis of Shelby County Schools’ footprint has been in the works for more than a year, and Hopson is promising to release the study soon. The long-awaited analysis, already delayed twice, would guide up to 24 school closures over the next five years. The study originally was requested by county leaders to help commissioners prioritize spending on school facilities.

“We asked for the facility study because we didn’t want to keep putting money into buildings we would end up closing,” Shafer explained.

Hopson surprised many when he rolled out his newest plan this month before releasing the analysis. Many Memphians, including Roland, have said they want to understand the big picture before considering plans to close schools.

“The facilities study will have to come into us before we move forward,” Roland told Chalkbeat. “You can’t ask for money until we know what you have, what the projects are.”

But the delay isn’t an issue for several other commissioners including Walter Bailey, who chairs the commission’s education committee. “I think they should forge ahead just as they plan to,” Bailey said. “I think it’s a good opener for great things to come.”

Commissioner David Reaves, a former school board member, is glad to see the district looking to replicate the consolidation model used at Westhaven Elementary. He called the proposed closure of the district’s neediest buildings “low-hanging fruit.”

“You can’t wait for the entire conversation to be complete for action to be taken right now,” Reaves said. “(Students) shouldn’t have to stay in there longer than they have to.”

Eddie Jones
PHOTO: Shelby County
Eddie Jones

Jones said it would be best for the district to bring the proposal to the board as soon as possible. “I think the faster they fix their problems, the better it will be for kids,” he said. “Kicking the can down the road is just delaying the inevitable.”

If Hopson gets the plan approved by the school board and the funding he wants from the commission, the county’s six municipal school districts also will benefit. On top of the money to Shelby County Schools, the county would have to distribute a proportion to each municipality based on student enrollment.

Hopson has said his proposal is mostly about addressing the cost of maintaining aging buildings, but Jones said academics shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.

“They could have all the new buildings, but how is it going to benefit the children who are going to be educated within the walls of that building? That’s the question,” Jones said.

Hopson said academics is already suffering in those buildings, however.

“Since these conditions are undoubtedly unproductive and not conducive to student achievement, their continued operation is unfair to students and taxpayers,” Hopson said in a guest column last weekend in The Commercial Appeal. “It’s nearly impossible for our district to maintain outdated buildings while at the same time investing in effective academic strategies, employee compensation, the latest technology, a variety of after-school and summer programs, innovative partnerships and other much needed things.”