Shelby County School Board votes to close 10 schools at charged meeting

After nearly a year of planning, two months of community engagement, and an emotional four hour meeting Tuesday, the Shelby County Schools board decided to close 10 schools in Memphis this year. It’s the largest single round of school closures in the city’s recent history and part of an effort to “right-size” a recently-merged district that is struggling financially and academically.

Over the last several weeks, parents, teachers, alumni, students and politicians have protested the closings, which they say will disrupt students’ education and hurt communities’ stability. Many have raised concerns that the closings disproportionately affect low-income black communities and represent a historical pattern of disinvestment.

“As a county, we’re being looked upon by people from all over the world,” said Shelby County commissioner Justin Ford in a speech that referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “As a member of the commission, I’ve heard and I’ve listened to the people of Westhaven, Lanier, Riverview and Northside. To the board, you all continue to do your jobs, but keep the schools open.”

Hopson said that his decisions were driven by academics, not budgetary pressures.

“The reality is, for many of our students, education is their last best chance to change their circumstance in life,” he said. “We have one of the poorest school districts in this country. We have about 40,000 students in households where income is less than $10,000 per year. The last best chance for these students is to create a condition where they can use the education system to their benefit.” Hopson said the closings were part of an effort to create those conditions.

In a series of split votes Tuesday, the board approved Hopson’s modified school closure proposal Tuesday.  Alcy Elementary School will remain open, and Northside High School’s closing was deferred for a year.

The board also voted to merge Riverview Elementary School and Riverview Middle School into one school rather than merging the middle school with nearby Carver High School and closing the elementary school. The new plan allows the district to retain federal School Improvement Grant funds they risked losing if the school was closed.

The board unanimously voted to petition the Shelby County Commission for funds to build a new school building for students currently enrolled at Fairley Elementary, Raineshaven Elementary, and Westhaven Elementary, each of which has millions in deferred maintenance costs. But Westhaven itself will be closed, and its students sent to Fairley and Raineshaven.

Shelby County Schools will stop operating Corry Middle and Shannon and Klondike elementary schools, which will be run by the state-run Achievement School District this fall. Those students not enrolled in the ASD schools, which do not yet include all grade levels, will be transferred to other schools. The board voted to close Gordon and Graves elementary schools and Lanier, Cypress and Vance middle schools.

Having decided to close 10 buildings, the district is now left with the task of determining how to academically support the newly-merged schools and fill the newly vacant buildings.

Board members David Pickler, Chris Caldwell and David Reeves voted in favor of Hopson’s proposal to close Graves, Lanier, Gordon and Vance schools. Board members Teresa Jones and Shante Avant voted against the closures of those four schools. Billy Orgel voted with Jones and Avant against the closure of Gordon. Chairman Kevin Woods voted against the closure of Vance and Lanier middle schools with Avant and Jones. The vote on the closings was broken into two pieces at board member Jones’ request.

Hopson had initially proposed a group of 13 schools to be closed next year due to declining enrollment, deteriorating facilities, and low academic achievement. Four of those schools were definite, as they are slated to be run by the state-run district. A fourteenth school, Fairview Middle School, will also be closed in its current form and reopened as the recently-named Maxine Smith STEAM Academy. The district hosted an intensive series of meetings regarding the other nine proposed closures leading to Hopson’s “down to the wire” modified proposal.

Tuesday night’s votes came after more than 20 community members addressed the board. The district’s auditorium was full of colorful signs (some of them printed in Northside High School’s print shop) and chanting before the meeting got underway. Hundreds stayed for well over three hours to hear board members’ votes.

State representatives Barbara Cooper and Raumesh Akbari and county commissioner Ford spoke against the closings during the public comment section.

During the meeting, Hopson laid out a map showing that many of the schools slated to close are near other schools, emphasizing that the plan would help right-size the district. He then presented the district’s plans to give principals at the merged school the authority to choose their own staff and support necessary to keep the schools open and academically successful. The district also plans to provide new technologies for the merged schools.

Tonight was the first time the public saw the district’s final plans for the school. Communities celebrated or grieved audibly as the superintendent’s plans were unveiled.

Board members Teresa Jones and Chris Caldwell asked superintendent Hopson if closing Westhaven could be delayed even for a year, while the district waited to see if the commission would fund the building. Many Westhaven parents have said the move would disrupt the school’s large number of special needs students.

Board member David Pickler reminded the audience that the district has received no funds for capital improvement from the county commission for the past three years and cautioned board members that funds for a new building might not come through. “It’s very fine that commissioner Ford came before us and made his comments,” Pickler said. “But we cannot depend on or expect any capital funding to be coming from county commission.”

Board member Jones told the superintendent she could not vote to close Lanier because she felt the district had misrepresented its plans to the community. She said that at Vance and Lanier, community members had been told that there would be a ninth-grade academy at the school, when in fact plans for the building are not yet clear. “I can’t support that having told the community that’s the case and it’s not…I was at a meeting, there were indications that certain things were going to take place.”

Hopson said that no plans could be made for buildings until the board voted on which schools to close. He said the district would have plans for the buildings before the end of the year.

Jones also asked the superintendent to reconsider closing Gordon Elementary, which currently serves students from a nearby Salvation Army homeless shelter who will now have to walk a longer distance to school.

After the closings votes, the board voted to approve a new name for its new optional school – Memphis STEAM Academy – and to approve a plan to mark the 60-year anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education set out by the National School Boards Association and Tennessee School Boards Association.

“We had some wins,” said board member Avant, who represents a majority of the soon-to-be closed schools. She said she would now focus on encouraging county commission members to fund the new school for Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven “and focusing on academic achievement in all of these schools. That’s really what we have to focus on, so we don’t run ourselves out of business.”

She cited the growing presence of charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District.

“We should be able to get back to focusing on academics,” said board member Billy Orgel.

Bridget Bradley, the president of Westhaven’s PTO, said, “This is not fair. We want to stay together.”

But Northside alumni and Alcy supporters were celebrating. Katrina Thomas, an alumnus of Northside High School, said, “we’re looking forward to working with the superintendent to come up with a plan for the school.”