A Shelby County proposal would create a new agency to manage school building construction across the county’s seven districts, including Memphis-Shelby County Schools, whose buildings need hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs.
The proposal reflects calls from some Shelby County commissioners for a long-term plan to address Memphis’ school building needs. Those calls escalated in December when commissioners pledged funding for a new MSCS high school, with a caveat that sought to ensure the public that funds were spent efficiently.
In response, Danielle Inez, director of the county’s new Office of Innovation, proposed Wednesday that commissioners vote to fund a consultant to study the county’s school building needs, and create an advisory group of education and government officials to oversee comprehensive school construction plans.
“Everyone has talked about our blighted school buildings,” Inez told commissioners. “However, with all of that effort and heart, we have not found a path to move the needle on the school construction needs in our community.”
Inez did not consult MSCS in developing the proposal, she told Chalkbeat.
School buildings are the workspaces for one of the county’s largest employers. And they are the learning environments for more than 100,000 students who may face several obstacles to learning before they even walk in the doors. The condition of Memphis’ school buildings, and who controls them, have long been subjects of debate and conflict, both within Memphis-Shelby County Schools, and recently, between the district and municipal leaders.
County seeks long-lasting school building plans
In the decade since its formation, MSCS has moved in fits and starts on plans to close, consolidate, renovate, and build new schools, as county commissioners have approved only a fraction of the district’s funding requests. This year, commissioners are also considering funding plans, including increased taxes, for $350 million in updates to Regional One Health, the region’s level 1 trauma hospital.
Dorsey Hopson, the first superintendent of the new district, presented one facility plan and offered another as he resigned in 2018. His successor, Joris Ray, had initial plans derailed by COVID-19 and eventually produced a plan two years ago, which incorporated federal relief funding to pay down maintenance costs. Now Toni Williams, the interim superintendent, is talking about releasing her own plan.
County Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the budget and finance committee, said building plans should not come and go with each superintendent.
“Both the school board (and) the county commission really ought to be the ones driving this,” Whaley said after Inez’s presentation. “And so if there is another plan that comes, it needs to be one that’s adopted by the school board, and that we can actually commit to, and should not change if the superintendent changes.”
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Under Inez’s proposal, the county would first hire an expert in school construction, then create a school construction advisory group to determine next steps, and finally form a school construction authority that would oversee a comprehensive countywide plan. The authority would include representatives from the county and its school districts — and potentially the city.
As new capital needs arise, district revamps building plans
Tennessee school buildings need $9 billion in investments over the next five years, according to a new state report. MSCS accounts for $464 million of that, and the new agency would respond to an estimated $546 million in school needs countywide.
Examples of that need are visible throughout the district. Weeks into the new school year, the library ceiling collapsed at Cummings K-8 school, forcing students to relocate to another building. Four years ago, students at Kirby High School were forced to relocate for months while the district spent $3 million on renovations. The culprit? A rat invasion.
Inez says her own child’s MSCS school is missing privacy partitions in the bathroom.
“That’s a really, really small maintenance issue, but it drives him nuts,” Inez said.
The county’s new push for construction oversight accompanied its pledge to fund a new high school in Cordova, to resolve a longstanding dispute with Germantown and comply with a state law.
Meanwhile, MSCS hasn’t been able to secure enough county funding for its existing capital plans, including a new high school that’s now on hold in Frayser, a high-poverty part of town. It has moved forward on plans to make Shady Grove, a former elementary school, a preschool hub, but backpedaled on a plan to expand a middle school, Mt. Pisgah, to add more grades.
Commissioner Charlie Caswell, whose district includes Frayser, told Chalkbeat Wednesday he plans to ask the county to find new funding for the new high school in Frayser.
Williams, the interim superintendent, has said the district will work with other government officials to create a new facilities plan, but as of earlier this week, hadn’t asked anyone to be part of that committee.
When Commissioner Miska Clay Bibbs was chair of the MSCS school board, it was a point of pride to see a new elementary school built in her neighborhood, she said at the time. The school was the result of a consolidation proposed by Hopson. In January, she told Chalkbeat that a larger conversation about buildings was overdue.
On Wednesday, she appeared supportive of Inez’s proposal, but said officials should still consider the incoming plan from MSCS.
Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.