School closings loom in background as Shelby County Schools plans 2014-15 budget

As Shelby County Schools’ board considers how to close a $24 million budget gap, district officials say their plans to close as many as 13 schools in Memphis are separate from strategies for closing that gap.

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II sent an email to board members in preparation for the district’s budget and finance committee meeting Thursday, saying that he plans to present a balanced budget, including cuts from the central office, closure of two alternative schools and a reduction in regional offices.

Earlier this week, Shelby County Schools concluded a series of meetings about the planned school closings in which community members repeatedly alleged that district decisions are driven by money and would have dire consequences for students and low-income black communities in Memphis. 

But district officials say that the plan to close schools is motivated by academic performance and low building utilization, not budget concerns, and so will likely not be a focus of Thursday’s discussion.

“Savings is not a factor when determining to close a school,” said Stefani Everson, a spokeswoman for the district. “It’s not a reason. The board is making its decision based on enrollment and opportunities for students.” She said that the financial ramifications of the closings would only be clear after the board votes on the proposals and determines how to staff the schools.

Officials are battling a public perception built by a sense that the closings come after a history of disinvestment in affected neighborhoods and by past school school closures tied to budget cuts.

The district began its budget planning process with a $103.7 million budget gap and has reduced that to $24 million, according to Hopson’s letter. The deficit projections are fluid until the 2014-15 budget is finalized.

Declining enrollment in district-run public schools in the Memphis is a factor in the district’s budget woes and in the plans for school closings. Hopson estimates that Shelby County Schools will lose $68 million in funds that will follow students who leave to attend one of the new municipal school districts in suburban Memphis, charter schools, or the state-run Achievement School District next year.

In the 2014-15 school year, as many as 28,000 students could attend a municipal school district and more than 2,000 might join the 12,000 already attending a charter or ASD school. Four of the 13 schools on the closings list will be run by the ASD or charters. The 150,000-student district has proposed putting new charter schools in some of the other facilities slated to close. The district is also pointing to declining birth trends in the neighborhoods surrounding many of the schools.

The result is schools with far fewer students than they were intended to hold. Lanier Middle School, for instance, had 638 students 10 years ago and 388 this year. Northside High School had 1,137 students 10 years ago but now has just 299.

Many large urban districts have closed district-run schools in recent years due to factors that include declining enrollment, low test scores, and financial woes. Last year, Chicago closed 50 schools and Philadelphia closed 24. (Detroit’s school district has closed dozens of schools in recent years, but last year decided to invest in a marketing strategy to lure students back to its schools rather than continuing to shutter schools.)

Research from the Pew Charitable Trusts that analyzed school closings in 12 cities, found that school districts tend not to save much money by closing schools, even when that was a stated goal, unless they went hand-in-hand with large layoffs. The district will be educating most of the same students and will need to foot transport students and staff the merged schools. Superintendent Hopson said the district plans to give merged schools priority in a new blended learning pilot, included in the budget proposal to be reviewed on Thursday.

At a community meeting earlier this year, superintendent Hopson told the audience that the district knew it might not save money by closing buildings.

The district has long been considering “right-sizing” by closing schools to match enrollment trends. But savings are usually cited as a benefit of the closings. The Transition Planning Commission responsible for guiding the merger between Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools suggested that more than 20 schools be closed, with a proposed savings of $21 million dollars and a cost of $1.9 million. The district closed four schools in 2012 and four more in 2013.

At a meeting of the board last April, the superintendent projected savings of about $4.1 million in a year if 10 schools were closed or merged.

But this time, during a round of closings that would be the largest in recent history, the district’s public plans for the proposed closures emphasize enrollment, facility conditions, and academic performance at each of the schools that might be closed and omit budget savings.

“Frequently Asked Questions” brochure passed out at school meetings lays out high deferred maintenance costs at six of the schools – for instance, $4.9 million at Cypress Elementary School – but does not specify other cost savings.

Reginald Porter Jr., the district’s chief of staff, said that the district is not trying to hit a specific target in savings from the closings, and that it is not aiming to close a specific number of schools.

Kevin Woods, the chairman of the Shelby County school board, said that he was presented with school closure recommendations made on the basis of school enrollment and student achievement. “We’re making the decisions based on those factors,” he said.

“Naturally when you look to right-size the school district, there are going to be some efficiencies there,” he said. “You hopefully will see those resources pulled back into schools that are affected by the closures…Schools may have been so underutilized that they haven’t had art or music, you have middle schools without sports.”

But some members of communities affected by the closings are skeptical of school officials’ shift in messaging from budget savings to school performance.

“Of course it’s about money,” said Bridget Bradley, the president of the PTO at Westhaven Elementary School, who is campaigning for the district to build a new building for Westhaven rather than closing it. “You do not close 12 to 13 schools without some hidden agenda about what kind money you’re going to save,” she said.

Bradley said that the district has historically invested less in low-income black communities than in schools in more-affluent, whiter parts of town. She cited recent investments in schools in Germantown and Collierville. That claim was echoed by many at the nine community meetings hosted by the district. The question of why certain buildings have so few students is also fraught: Part of that drop at Northside is due to the relocation of certain programs.

Chief of staff Porter has said that current staff are working with a tough situation that has been created by decades of district leaders.

At the district’s final community meeting, at Riverview Middle School, board member Teresa Jones responded to several speakers’ contention that the decision was “all about money.” “Money is a factor in everything you do,” Jones said. “We’re struggling to use the dollars we have to do the most good.”

In Hopson’s Feb. 5 email, he assured board members that he would present a balanced budget that aligns with district priorities: to improve student literacy, promote effective teachers and leaders, improve underperforming schools, increase opportunities for high-achieving students, increase business efficiencies and improve community engagement. The letter does not mention the school closings plans.

Board chairman Woods and member Chris Caldwell have said now that the business of the merger is over, they want the district to focus improving student literacy. Board members learned in November that more than 60 percent of Shelby County’s third graders are reading at a basic or below basic level.

Hopson has encouraged community members protesting the closures to focus on improving literacy in their schools. “If we’re not providing quality education, we’re doing kids a disservice,” he said. Hopson said that merging schools will allow the district to consolidate resources and improve schools.

Thursday’s budget and finance committee meeting is at 1 p.m. in the Barnes building conference room 214.