A national group that provides emergency shelter services withdrew its proposal to house unaccompanied migrant children in a vacant Memphis school building Tuesday — a day after school board members heard the request.

Under a $3.7 million federal grant, the Georgia-based Baptiste Group had proposed operating a residential facility and providing health and educational services until 2025 at the former South Side Middle School, which until last summer housed a state-run charter school. But Baptiste withdrew its application after Chalkbeat started asking questions about the plan.

School board members were expected to vote on the $15,000-per-month lease next week, but during a committee meeting Monday, the board did not know if the “unaccompanied children” mentioned in a presentation by district staff were local or coming from elsewhere.

“They can’t just shove them anywhere without the proper facilities,” said board member Michelle Robinson McKissack. “There’s clearly some precedent for that, and I don’t want that happening in Shelby County.”

Facilities for children and their families crossing the southern U.S. border have been scrutinized in recent months for inadequate care and overcrowding. Michelle Stuart, the district’s director of facility planning and property management, said the group would have had to do extensive renovations on the building before it would be suitable for housing children. The only showers available are in the gym locker rooms, she told board members Monday.

Michelle Stuart, Shelby County Schools’ manager of facility planning and property management.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

Stuart said she invited Baptiste to the committee meeting to explain how the building would be used, but the group did not send a representative Monday. Later, the district sent Chalkbeat three documents related to the lease proposal, which included the federal grant reward for an “unaccompanied alien children program” to provide “residential shelter services.”

Also included was an informational letter to the district, where Baptiste Group Vice President Gretchen Baptiste said their mission is to “provide humanitarian services to children in a nurturing environment.”

According to the letter, children would receive six hours of schooling and have access to books, board games, computers, recreation, and crafts. Proposed supervision would be one staff member for every eight children and 24-hour security. The group estimated 120 jobs for the facility.

Michelle Robinson McKissack, a school board member for Shelby County Schools.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

“The Baptiste Group would be a good neighbor and valued member of the community,” Baptiste said. “Our program would bring new money and jobs to Shelby County and fit very well into the surrounding neighborhood.”

Baptiste said the average length of stay for children living at their facilities is 30 days. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the national average in June was 45 days, down from a high of 93 days in November. If approved, the facility would join 168 others funded by the office in 23 states, according to a recent federal report.

As of Monday, approximately 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children were in the federal department’s care. Last year, most of the 49,000 children who were housed were Guatemalan boys 15 years old or older, according the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Unaccompanied children from Central America are not new to Memphis. In response to a growing influx of students and a federal investigation into how Shelby County Schools treats them, the district opened a Newcomer International Center for high school students. The center infuses core classes such as math, science, history, and language arts with English language learning for up to two years. Students join the rest of the student population for elective classes. The center is entering its third year this fall.

Emails to Baptiste were not returned Tuesday. Reached by phone, the Georgia realtor handling the lease negotiation for Baptiste said she would need to check with her client before commenting.

Federal officials with health and human services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which handles care of unaccompanied children, did not return Chalkbeat’s request for comment Tuesday.

Correction, July 25, 2019: A previous version of this story said the Tennessee Department of Human Services administered the Baptiste Group’s federal grant. Shelby County Schools officials said they misspoke in saying the state department had anything to do with the grant.