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VOL. 127 | NO. 235 | Monday, December 03, 2012

Board Votes to Close, Convert Schools

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel warned school administrators that they may be pushed aside if they don’t come up with recommendations that produce more efficiencies and save more money for the soon-to-be-merged school systems.

ORGEL

Orgel’s warning came at the end of a busy week in the schools merger.

It began with the federal court ruling that scrapped moves toward municipal school districts in the suburbs, at least for the 2013-2014 school year when the merger takes effect.

It continued Thursday, Nov. 29, when the board voted to begin the process of considering the closing of four elementary schools in western Memphis and the conversion of two other inner-city schools.

The first steps toward the slate of closings and reconfigurations differ from the recommendation of the schools consolidation planning commission, which called for closing an unidentified 21 Memphis schools to save $21 million.

All 172 planning commission recommendations for the merger are being screened by a transition steering committee of top administrators from both school systems.

The planning commission recommendation on school closings was based on schools using 80 percent or less of their capacity in terms of students.

Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash and the steering committee disagreed with the savings estimate and said the slate approved by the school board Thursday should produce an estimated $5 million in savings.

“There really in my estimation … is no clear body of research on the impact of closing schools either as a fiscal remedy for budget woes or for eliminating or reducing the number of failing schools in a large district,” Cash said. “The bottom line is we don’t have enough better options for our children to go to if we close a large number of schools in a community or in a particular section of town. We just don’t.”

Memphis City Schools staff considered utilization percentages along with which nearby schools have the capacity to take students from the closed schools and projected birth rates as well as residential development plans near the schools.

“There’s no money out there for public education,” Orgel said as he warned that there is little if any political will on the Shelby County Commission to raise property taxes to close at least a $57 million gap between expenses and revenues for the merged school district that debuts in August.

Voters in November rejected a ballot proposal for a half-cent countywide sales tax hike in which $30 million of the $60 million in revenue created would have gone to education.

“If you guys don’t go back and look at items that can save money, I don’t know that this board can continue to let the (steering committee) continue to do this,” Orgel warned. “The board is going to have to take over the process. … What we did tonight is a step and it’s a continuing step. But there is no money out there in the community to fund education. It’s not pandering. It’s reality. There’s no money.”

School board member Martavius Jones, however, countered that with the 2008 decision by the Memphis City Council to reduce city funding to Memphis City Schools the lack of additional funding has been an ongoing problem.

“We have to be willing to step up to the plate,” Jones said as he advocated for support of a tax hike. “Nobody wants to pay more taxes. But Tennessee is the third least taxed state in the country. We cannot be afraid to invest in our future.”

Still to come in the school closing considerations is another impact study from schools staff and a set of public hearings in the affected communities. The board is scheduled to vote in March on the closings as the final step in the process.

The elementary schools that could be closed outright are Coro Lake, White’s Chapel, Orleans and Norris.

Cash also recommended and the board gave preliminary approval to closing Humes Middle School and moving its seventh and eighth graders to Gordon Elementary School. Humes would undergo an $11 million repurposing to reopen in 2013-2014 as a magnet school for musical arts and sciences.

Gordon would close as a Memphis City School to be run by the charter school operator Gestalt as part of the state-run Achievement School District. Gestalt already operates a charter school program in Gordon for the district. But it currently operates alongside a conventional attendance zone school at Gordon.

Cash said he is still talking terms for a complete takeover of Gordon by the Achievement School District and beyond that an expansion of the operation at Gordon to encompass kindergarten through the 12th grade.

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