County mayor expresses support for new school buildings, but cost is about half what Memphis district estimated

County Mayor Lee Harris expressed support for a new high school in one of the county’s poorest areas as he stood in a new $95 million high school in one of the county’s richest suburbs.

The front of Collierville High School when it opened in 2018. (Renier Otto/The Commercial Appeal)

Harris held his annual county address at Collierville High School on Friday as an example of “what’s possible.”

“The problem is that our schools are crumbling,” Harris said, promising to work with county commissioners, who fund local schools, to come up with $50 million over the next few years to construct a new building.

“If we build a high school in Frayser or another community in need, we have a chance to expand educational services to students,” he said.

But his estimate is far less than what Shelby County Schools officials want. Preliminary numbers for the district’s “Reimagining 901” plan call for $89 million for new high schools to accommodate newer technology in classrooms.

Most of Shelby County Schools’ buildings are more than 40 years old and a few are over 100 years old. Altogether, the district has about $500 million in building repair needs.

The Frayser neighborhood is also home to MLK College Preparatory High School, where Harris’ after-school welding and carpentry program is held in the library because there’s no proper space for learning those trades at the school.

After the address, Superintendent Joris Ray said, “It’s not just about the brick and mortar. It’s about all the 21st century technology inside of the building, which drives the cost.

Martin Luther King College Prep students (right) and onlookers laugh as Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris (middle) attempts to use a virtual welding machine during a demonstration Nov. 19. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

“But we’re very appreciative of the start that Mayor Harris discussed this afternoon,” he said. “We want our students to enjoy a building — like the one here in Collierville — in Frayser, North Memphis, Northaven. We have so many needs in so many different areas.”

The district has built two new elementary schools since the county and city school systems merged in 2013 and split a year later. A third is slated to open this fall. Beyond that, district officials are putting the finishing touches on its facilities plan and will likely present it this spring to county commissioners.

County policy limits spending to $75 million each year on building projects across its seven school systems and any county-owned building, so $50 million in one year is unlikely, said LaSonya Hall, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer.

“I think what that means is we’re going to take a serious look at our capital improvements budget and see how much we can assist in making that a reality,” she said.

Harris said his vision for a new high school is likely the start of a “long conversation,” but that it’s worth having.

“I know we have talked about this issue for years and years and years,” he said during his speech. “I know that the only way things change is if someone dares to try.”