Memphis school leaders take a second look at budget after Shelby County rejects proposal for facilities increase

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray at the State of the District address on April 16, 2021.

Shelby County Schools officials will have to find additional money to help them with “Reimagining 901,” the district’s school improvement and construction plan, after the County Commission failed to grant the district the $55 million it requested for building projects and maintenance Monday night. 

Instead, the commission dedicated $22.3 million from its capital improvement budget to Shelby County Schools, about the same amount as last year.

District officials were hoping that the requested $55 million would be the first installment in a 10-year, $550 million commitment from the commission, funds that it promised to use to bulldoze, renovate, and build dozens of schools.

“We’re appreciative of our relationship with the County Commission. We want to be able to continue to build out the plan to support our students all across the district,” said Shante Avant, co-chair of the schools’ audit, budget, and finance committee.

The district’s total budget, which includes construction costs, salaries, and academic programs, is $2.2 billion, its largest ever.

Because of the healthy amount of federal aid that has flowed into the school system, some county commissioners scoffed at the district’s $55 million capital improvement request.

For weeks, county budget committee chair Edmund Ford II has voiced concern that what the district requested for facilities was impossible to allocate without raising property tax bills or ballooning the county debt.

Some of the big changes proposed under the 10-year plan include: closing Trezevant High School and merging students into a new Frayser high school in 2025, closing Treadwell Elementary and Treadwell Middle School and merging students into a new Treadwell PreK-8 in 2026, and closing Bethel Grove, Cherokee, and Dunbar Elementary Schools and merging students into a new Orange Mound K-8 in 2027.

Under the initial budget, five schools were set to get new or upgraded gyms: Delano Elementary, Douglass K-8, Grahamwood Elementary, Richland Elementary, and Kingsbury High. Under the revised budget, only Delano is currently slated for a gym addition. The district also removed $800,000 of improvements to Central High School from its list of 2022 projects, and a slew of paving and painting projects.

The revised budget still includes upgrades at Whitehaven High School Stadium and Central High School’s Halle Stadium. Track upgrades at Raleigh Egypt Stadium were recently added. And the district plans to forge ahead with the architectural and design work for the three proposed new schools. 

“There’s a list of projects, they’re listed based on priority, so those that are the top priorities, something like an HVAC that controls heating and cooling in the building, we prioritize them,” said Avant.

“Those that are at the top of the priority list are what we will look at first, then we’ll have to go back to see how we might be able to shift some funds for some of the other capital projects.”

Some of that money will come from the more than $750 million the district has received in federal aid dollars, which the district hopes to use for fire alarm system upgrades at several schools. The board will vote on the amended budget and resubmit the budget to the commission for approval on June 16.

Before Monday’s seven-hour County Commission meeting, members of the Moral Budget Coalition campaigned for commissioners to delay the budget vote and asked commissioners to dedicate more dollars toward “vital priorities” such as literacy programs, school nurses, mental health services, public transportation, affordable housing, and relief for renters.

“All these things are things that should be at the core of any budget and that’s why we’re calling it the moral budget,” said Paul Garner, outreach coordinator for Stand for Children Tennessee. 

“We wish we would have had the benefit of having a budget calendar available to the public sooner. I wasn’t able to get a copy of the budget itself from the city or county until late April, and that’s when we saw these budgets presented, and so outside of that, we would have to be mind-readers to know what their plans for the budget were,” Garner added. 

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