Bridget Bradley sat at the head of a table in a work room at Westhaven Elementary School, a black binder full of laminated papers in front of her, a pile of manila folders with the names of media outlets and school board members written neatly on the sides on top.
A half-dozen local residents sat around the table. A knock came at the door: County commissioner Justin Ford, who had just read a Dr. Seuss book to a classroom of elementary schoolers. “What have you all got going on here today?” he asked.
A month after the Shelby County school board voted to close Westhaven Elementary School and request funds to build a new school in their area, community members who protested the school’s closing are organizing to keep staff and students together and ensure that the new school gets built.
Westhaven is one of 10 schools in Memphis that are part of the largest single slate of school closings in the district’s history.
The planned closings prompted an outcry: Many in the low-income, predominantly black communities where the closings will take place saw them as a part of a pattern of disinvestment and neglect on the part of the city and the school system.
Bradley and others who fought for Westhaven achieved a partial victory: Part of the school district’s request for $52 million in capital funds from the county is for a new building for students from Fairley, Raineshaven, and Westhaven elementary schools.
But they are concerned that the building may not be built, and are dissatisfied with plans to separate students into two schools next year.
Thus the recent meeting with Ford, which was preceded by a meeting with superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II.
Hopson described Westhaven as a “special case.” Though most of the closing schools were on the list due to low academic performance and underutilized buildings, Hopson initially described Westhaven’s building as “unsafe.”
The district had planned to permanently move Westhaven students into Fairley and Raineshaven. Hopson said he discovered that both Fairley and Raineshaven were in need of new buildings as well. The district currently plans to send Westhaven students and staff to Fairley and Raineshaven until a new building for students from all three schools is built.
Hopson met with Bradley on Monday to discuss whether the school’s staff and students could be kept together at Raineshaven. Hopson has made a point of meeting with alumni, community members, and other protesters since the school closings process began.
But Bradley wasn’t fully satisfied by the outcome of her conversation with the superintendent. She said she believes the building is being demolished to hide evidence that it is unsafe.
On Tuesday, she asked Ford whether the county commission could encourage the district. “Is there any way we can get a push from you guys?” Bradley asked Ford. “We got a new school. Our fight now is to try to keep our students and staff together.” The conversation returned several times to if and how Ford could guarantee that the funds for a new Westhaven school would actually come through.
Bradley asked Ford if the council could recommend that the school’s staff be kept together. Ford read a resolution asking the district to reevaluate its plan to close Westhaven. Ford was noncommital.
“I took on this work for you all and I’ll see it through the end,” Ford said. “But you have seven school board commissioners. So what we have to do is, we have to put the pressure on…What I can do, we have the control over the operating budget. So when Hopson comes with his budget, I can say, I’m not going to give you a dime – so what we gonna do is cut you a hundred million dollars and make you work for it, and you still have to build the new school, ‘cause that comes from capital funds…You obviously don’t need a billion dollars if you closed 14 schools. That’s when the conversation will go to: someone has to be responsible for this. They have more than enough money to run the schools.”
The school district’s proposed budget for 2014-15 is 19 percent smaller than last year’s and includes dramatic staff cuts across departments. The school closings are part of an effort to improve efficiency and, ideally, academics by combining schools and resources, though superintendent Hopson said it is not likely to save much money overall.
Bradley emailed county commissioners on Thursday, saying:
“We ask that during your voting process that you stipulate that 12 million will go to build a new Westhaven, due to the fact that this area has been neglected and forgotten for so long we are afraid that the SCS will not keep it’s word and build our school. We feel when they receive these funds that they will make up some excuse citing that the funds have to be used in another capacity. In short we don’t trust them , to much has been promised and never delivered.”
David Gross, the leader of Citizens Against Reckless Endangerment, or CARE, who has been working with Bradley, also complained to the health department that many teachers are experiencing health concerns due to asbestos and mold in the building.
The health department visited the school late last week and found some asbestos was exposed in ceiling tiles, blocked air vents, and some unreplaced tiles. The department recommended that teachers stop hanging items from ceilings, which exposed some asbestos; review its plan for replacing tiles; and asked the district to ensure that parents and the school community were educated about asbestos.
&amp;lt;a href=”https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1098118/health-evaluation-westhaven.pdf”&amp;gt;Health Evaluation Westhaven (PDF)&amp;lt;/a&amp;gt;&amp;lt;br /&amp;gt;<br />
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&amp;lt;a href=”https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1098118/health-evaluation-westhaven.txt”&amp;gt;Health Evaluation Westhaven (Text)&amp;lt;/a&amp;gt;&amp;lt;br /&amp;gt;<br />
At a board meeting earlier this week, commissioners raised concerns about the state of the district’s buildings after an official told the board members that more than 35 roofs in the district are leaking. The county commission did not give the district money for capital improvements for several years running before last year.
Bradley says she is concerned about students’ and teachers’ health and wants a guarantee that students will stay together and that a new building will be built.
“We have to keep on them,” Bradley told the group gathered on Tuesday. “Email, call, talk – whatever we did before [to petition for a new building], we have to do it again. I’m talking to whoever we have to talk to.”