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of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.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.