Memphis-Shelby County Schools facilities proposals envision $215 million in savings

An electronic Memphis-Shelby County Schools sign near the road shows the district’s website www.scsk12.org
Draft plans from Memphis-Shelby County Schools include proposals to close, consolidate, and redevelop school buildings. Administrative offices, like the campus at 160 S. Hollywood St., could be affected by consolidation plans, too. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

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Draft plans from Memphis-Shelby County Schools for overhauling its aging facilities include proposals to save the district more than $200 million by repurposing 20 academic buildings and consolidating administrative offices.

MSCS officials shared the plans on Wednesday during the first meeting of a new steering committee that’s helping the district develop its buildings strategy and generate community support for it. The committee is made up of a school board member and other elected officials, and leaders from government agencies, local nonprofit organizations, and community groups. 

The final plan will include school closures and consolidations. But MSCS wants the committee to help the district broaden the scope of the plan to determine new uses for the buildings that will close, improve academic programming at existing schools, and enhance the role of schools as community centers. Such an overhaul could affect students in almost every MSCS school in some way over the next 10 years.

It’s a big, complex task that will have to navigate Memphis school traditions and overcome the controversial legacy of previous consolidation plans. Success will depend on the district’s ability to build support among school board and community members, find new funding sources, and see its plan through a leadership transition that will begin next spring, when interim Superintendent Toni Williams’ tenure winds down.

For months, Williams has been promising a comprehensive facilities plan to deal with underused buildings and a growing list of deferred maintenance projects. Previous district leaders made the same promise, but their plans never fully materialized

Williams hopes the involvement of the steering committee will set the latest effort apart. She reminded the members that they weren’t there to create “Toni’s plan.” 

During the closed-door meeting Wednesday, district officials avoided naming specific schools targeted for closure, consolidation or redevelopment, concerned that doing so would provoke “emotional decisions” rather than strategic ones, Williams told the committee. 

“Let’s do this together,” she said. 

MSCS proposes $215 million in savings from closures, consolidations

The draft proposals shared Wednesday broadly outline a first round of potential closures and investments over the next five years, affecting some 50 schools and administrative buildings. If additional funding comes through, the impact could spread to a total of 110 buildings and properties over the next decade, or roughly half of MSCS’ sites.  

The most specific elements of the district’s proposals so far involve efforts to reduce costs upfront — before seeking new funding — which the district projects would produce a saving of $215 million. 

The bulk of that would come from repurposing — likely closing — 23 buildings, and eliminating nearly $110 million in estimated deferred maintenance costs. The move would free up $24 million annually in operating funds.

District officials described these plans as “academic spaces for reuse,” rather than “school closures.” No one identified the proposed 23 sites by name.

District officials offered an overview of how the broader strategy could produce changes in different parts of town. The district has used a combination of factors — enrollment, building utilization, proximity to other schools, demographic trends, deferred maintenance needs, and feeder patterns — to determine which schools to consider for proposed closure or consolidation. 

Schools that are set to receive new students would get new investments, as would schools with historically low academic performance.

For the buildings that do close, the district envisions being more engaged in determining what happens to them afterward, including vetting redevelopment proposals. 

“You all have an opportunity to really ask for proposals that specify impact,” said Ernest Strickland, a steering committee member who heads the Black Business Association of Memphis. 

The chair of the committee, school board member Kevin Woods, added that MSCS should consider ways that reusing closed schools could generate revenue and create excitement in the community, rather than leaving a blighted, vacant site.

“I think too often, the reason that these meetings aren’t often as courageous as we need them to be is because anytime you lead with the idea of closing schools, that’s the only image” shared by news media, Woods said.  

John Zeanah, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development and a former employee of the Memphis City Schools’ planning office, suggested that the district start earlier to find ways to reuse buildings, as enrollment drops below capacity.

“Let’s not wait until a building is ready to be closed to be thinking about adaptive reuse,” Zeanah said.

Another chunk of savings would come from consolidating nine of the district’s administrative buildings. This is what the district had in mind when the school board approved the purchase of the Bayer Building at 3030 Jackson Ave. in 2018 as a new district headquarters.

The consolidation would free up an estimated $65 million, counting savings on maintenance costs and proceeds from the sales of the administrative buildings. The plans did not make clear which buildings would remain, but suggested some 1,700 staffers would relocate. Currently, most of the district’s central office staff work from 160 S. Hollywood St., about 3 miles south of the Bayer Building.  

Facilities overhaul hinges on funding

To execute the kind of broad, long-range strategy that it envisions, the district will need steady cooperation from the school board that carries through the expected superintendent transition this spring and summer. It will need the steering committee to remain engaged and united behind the broader objectives of optimizing the way the district uses its space. And it will need members of the community to buy in to a plan that is certain to disrupt routines and traditions in neighborhoods across the city.

But more than that, it will need money. 

This summer, the Shelby County Commission approved a tax increase to help fund two new high schools in Frayser and Cordova, but those projects account for just a fraction of the district’s building needs. And the commission in recent years has approved only half the district’s requests for capital funds.

On Wednesday, Williams repeated calls for new funds from the federal government, plus the City of Memphis. Neither source is a sure bet. 

The federal COVID relief aid that has helped many school districts around the country fund their construction projects is about to run out. And in Tennessee, a legislative panel is actually exploring whether the state can feasibly forgo federal education funding altogether rather than submit to the regulations that come with it. 

Mayor-elect Paul Young has said he would support city funding for improved school buildings, but that would require support from the City Council. Council Chairman Martavius Jones is a former school board member who sits on the steering committee. But because of term limits, he won’t be on the council next year when Young takes over as mayor.

The district could benefit from private support through its collaboration with More for Memphis, a community development initiative spearheaded by the education-focused nonprofit Seeding Success.

“Our unique opportunity is to position this infrastructure plan at the heart of our total community redevelopment,” said Mark Sturgis, the CEO of Seeding Success. Sturgis explained how federal infrastructure goals align with the local incentives within the More for Memphis plan for community redevelopment.

More for Memphis is a five-year, $100 million investment that can be applied to this work, Sturgis said.

The final MSCS plans will reflect the results coming from an updated facilities assessment the school board approved last month. The district says its current estimate of deferred maintenance costs is $458 million, a figure that hasn’t budged much despite years of investments from Shelby County and the district.   

“All this is simply a dream if we don’t have the proper resources to make it a reality,” Woods said.

Steering committee will meet again Oct. 31

The committee’s suggestions will inform meetings of subcommittees, groups that will include other board members, plus people from school campuses and the communities, MSCS leaders said. 

Another steering committee meeting is set for Oct. 31. MSCS board members will be updated on the draft proposals and suggestions during a retreat scheduled for Nov. 3 and 4.

Wednesday’s committee meeting, facilitated by former politician and public relations professional Deidre Malone, was not open to the public. But a Chalkbeat Tennessee reporter learned of the meeting and attended it. No other media or members of the public were present.

Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that whether the committee is subject to open-meetings laws depends on how it was created and what it’s being asked to do.

Williams announced the steering committee during a school board meeting last month. 

Documents associated with the committee should be public records, Fisher said.

“Closing schools is a big deal, and sometimes needs to be done. It’s a hard decision that school districts make,” Fisher added. “So it needs to be a transparent process.”

Committee members have access to additional information that wasn’t included in the district’s slide presentation Wednesday, and will receive more data and draft proposals. Williams cautioned them against sharing details of what they received.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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