Memphis-Shelby County Schools wants the county to approve $10 million in funding for a new high school in Frayser that would combine Trezevant High School with MLK College Preparatory High School, a charter school in the state turnaround district.
The proposal, presented by the district on Wednesday, is part of a much bigger funding request that’s likely to run into resistance from the Shelby County Commission, given its borrowing constraints and its commitments to other capital spending projects, including hospital renovations and a new MSCS school in Cordova. In recent years, the district received only a fraction of funding it requested, and its planned projects have been scuttled or delayed.
The proposed school combination in Frayser is one of those projects, stuck on the drawing board for years without the necessary funding, even though it has long had support from the Shelby County mayor.
The latest proposal hints at how the Memphis district hopes to revive the project while also dealing with the unraveling of the state-run Achievement School District, which has largely failed in its mission to reform the state’s poorest-performing schools, mostly in Memphis, under the leadership of charter operators.
The future of many of those schools and their buildings — owned by MSCS — remains in limbo as their charter contracts near expiration and they transition out of the Achievement School District. MSCS data shows most of the schools are underenrolled, representing opportunities to improve the way district property is used.
Shelby County commissioners will vote later this spring on the district’s budget and its capital funding request. By then, the MSCS school board will have chosen the district’s next superintendent and finalized a 10-year infrastructure plan that’s expected to include a mix of school closures, consolidations, and new school buildings.
School officials, including interim Superintendent Toni Williams, have told board members that the infrastructure plan will aim to optimize the use of school buildings and address a deferred maintenance bill that has grown to hundreds of millions of dollars.
In addition to the $10 million for the Frayser project, the district is asking the Shelby County Commission to fund $56 million in deferred maintenance projects for next year. The combined $66 million request is about $11 million more than last year’s proposal, and three times what the district actually received when commissioners approved the budget.
County commissioners on Wednesday didn’t indicate whether they would support fully funding the capital request, which would be a sharp break from recent precedent.
Already this year, additional capital funds are headed to MSCS for the new school in Cordova to replace Germantown High School, one of the district’s academic success stories. The school is closing under an agreement to resolve a long-running dispute with Germantown and comply with a new state law.
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Funding a new Frayser high school to replace two others would focus investments on students who have languished academically in the Achievement School District, and eliminate millions of dollars in maintenance needs at Trezevant High, which has been slated for closure before.
The price tag on the project has increased to a projected $103 million, which the district hopes to fund in installments from the county over the next four years.
Bobby White, founder and chief executive officer of Frayser Community Schools, which operates MLK College Prep, reiterated his support for the new Frayser school to Chalkbeat. While White has applied for MLK to be an MSCS charter school, he said he would relinquish the charter when the time comes to integrate the two schools in a new building.
“The funding hasn’t been approved yet. They haven’t broken ground yet. But we all want it to happen,” White said Wednesday.
The district still plans to convene a group of county, city, and district leaders to work on a long-term facility plan. Williams, the interim superintendent who is seeking the job on a permanent basis, has said she wants a plan that “lives past me or anybody else.”
Meanwhile, a proposal from the county would create a countywide authority to oversee school construction.
It’s unclear how those two moves would affect the district’s latest funding requests.
Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.