Five key issues facing Memphis-Shelby County Schools as the new year begins

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Memphis-Shelby County Schools students return to class Monday for the 2023-24 school year.

This one could be less turbulent than recent years, but no less consequential, as the district confronts key decisions about its next leader, the future of its school buildings, its strategy for improving student academic performance and wellness, and its budget for the post-pandemic era.

Here’s a closer look at five key issues that the district will face this school year:

Search for a superintendent is on — again

MSCS is still seeking applicants for its superintendent job, nearly a year after Joris Ray resigned amid a scandal

The first attempt to find a leader unraveled, exposing disagreements on the board, fueling public doubts about whether the body could execute a search successfully, and forcing a hard reset.

The board remains committed to the national search it promised Memphians last year. Interim Superintendent Toni Williams, who had once been a finalist for the permanent job, won’t be a candidate. She agreed to drop out of the search under the terms of a new contract she signed to continue as interim leader through another school year. 

So far, Take 2 of the search has been consistent with the parameters and the that timeline board members set out in their discussions: The new job posting, which went up at the start of August, reflects the leadership qualities board members collectively decided on, and all applicants will be evaluated against the board’s policy on minimum qualifications

If the second attempt goes according to plan, applications will close by November, and a new superintendent will be selected by February, with a start date of July 1, 2024. By that schedule, the new superintendent would have a chance to ease into the leadership role during a transition period with Williams, who by that point will have led the district for close to two years.  

School building projects will keep students moving

District officials will introduce a new facilities plan this school year that will propose ways to address a backlog of costly maintenance issues. A mix of construction projects, closures, and consolidations will likely affect thousands of students, requiring that some move out of their school buildings and into others. 

MSCS is working with More for Memphis, a consortium spearheaded by nonprofit Seeding Success, to develop the plans and establish funding sources. 

The plan will describe 110 school investments over the next decade, and officials say they are seeking millions of dollars in private funds for the first five years of facility upgrades and academic improvements. In addition to schools, the district may also consolidate administrative offices, reviving efforts started years ago with the purchase of the old Bayer Building.

Some school communities are already preparing for changes, separate from the new districtwide plan. Under agreements between MSCS and neighboring districts to comply with a new state law, Germantown High School is due to be replaced by a new building in Cordova, mostly paid for through local tax increases. Germantown Elementary and Middle schools will also close in coming years, as will Lucy Elementary School in Millington. 

Meanwhile, LaRose Elementary will continue to accommodate students from Cummings K-8, where falling ceiling tiles forced the building to close for repairs just weeks into the 2022-23 school year.

And in Frayser, students at Trezevant High and at MLK College Prep High, which is part of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools, can expect a new high school building in the coming years. Hanley, a K-8 school that was also in the ASD, is returning to MSCS. 

The district’s broader plan is likely to address other Memphis schools that are currently in the ASD or expected to exit in coming years. 

Academic needs will get a closer look

MSCS will remain focused on improving academic performance for individual students, but changes are also happening at the school and district levels to improve accountability for academics.

While MSCS students are making progress in their recovery from learning losses during the pandemic, math scores still lag, especially for middle schoolers

And in reading, scores on state standardized tests have rebounded, but proficiency rates for the district have historically been among the lowest in the state. The reading test scores are particularly consequential for third graders, who face the risk of being held back if they don’t successfully complete certain intervention programs.

Interim Superintendent Williams has supported a review of district academic departments and initiatives with a focus on literacy. The review would look at where the district is spending funds for academic programming and assess how effective those programs have been. That assessment would inform the development of an academic plan that board members would monitor each month for progress. 

At the school level, the district has expanded its own turnaround program, called the Innovation Zone, or iZone, to include several more schools, including four schools that have returned from the ASD. Schools in the iZone have a longer school day to provide more instruction for students and help the schools perform better overall. 

The iZone expansion comes as new accountability measures take effect in Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Education is expected to begin assigning letter grades to public schools this fall, after years of delays

District will have to adapt to end of some federal funding

MSCS bolstered its budget over the last several years with some $775 million in one-time federal funds to help schools deal with the pandemic and support their recovery efforts. The dollars come from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and are commonly referred to as ESSER funds.

Districts have until September 2024 to spend their funds, so officials have to wrap up the spending this school year. 

MSCS has already budgeted funds for academic recovery programs, salaries for educational assistants in early grades, and improvements to schools’ heating and air systems. Early rounds of funding were used to buy computers and tablets so students could learn from home online. (Actual spending in the district has been difficult for the public to track.)

As the federal funds run out, Memphis and other districts across the country will have to decide which programs they can sustain with other funding sources, and which ones they will cut.

But the adjustment will be less harsh for Tennessee school districts, thanks to the state’s new school funding formula, which came alongside a $1 billion increase in education spending. Memphis was projected to receive about $114 million more in recurring funds through the new formula, which takes effect this school year. 

City’s crises challenge student health, academic success

MSCS has spent more on social emotional learning and support for students, including new wellness centers as some schools. Mental health employees will get the salary schedule they sought last school year.

Factors outside of the district, though, continue to create obstacles. Youth homelessness in MSCS, for instance, has climbed to its highest measured count in four years, to 2,880 students at the end of the last school year. 

Support services for Memphis students and families outside of the classroom have grown in importance since the start of the pandemic.

How Memphis and Shelby County tackle persistent social issues such as violence, policing, justice, and poverty will be a critical factor for student wellness and academic success in the district. Candidates in October’s crowded mayoral election have offered many ideas, including some that mirror existing MSCS programs.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at