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VOL. 128 | NO. 81 | Thursday, April 25, 2013

Reaction Mixed to School Closings Plan

By Bill Dries

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There is a joke going around among school administrators across the country in the wake of the decision by Chicago school leaders to close more than 50 schools there.

“What do you call a superintendent who closes schools?” countywide school board member Kevin Woods began in telling the joke at the Tuesday, April 23, board meeting. “You call him a past superintendent.”

In the case of Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who proposed closing 11 schools just months after the school board voted to close four other schools, he is an interim superintendent.

Hopson said in March, when he became leader of the city and county school systems going into the Aug. 5 merger, that because of his interim status he would probably make some controversial recommendations. That included closing more schools.

The school board will vote next week on whether to begin the process of holding public hearings on the proposal.

Hopson’s list includes three high schools – Carver, Northside and Westwood.

The other schools on the list to close in August 2014 are Corry and Lanier middle schools; and Shannon, Riverview, Alcy, Graves and Westhaven elementary schools, all Memphis City Schools, as well as E. A. Harrold Elementary School in Millington.

“I looked at these recommendations to figure out whether or not it made sense to close these schools and in my judgment it does,” Hopson said.

The criteria for the recommendations included enrollment in the schools and their capacity as well as the condition of the schools, Hopson said.

“I don’t want the board to think about this in terms of saving money,” he added. “I think you should be motivated by the best interest of the students.”

Schools with smaller enrollments usually don’t get the array of programs and class offerings that larger schools get.

The school board’s first reaction was mixed starting with board members who cited the impact the school closings would have on the surrounding communities, most of them in Southwest Memphis.

“I grew up in South Memphis as a youngster,” Hopson said. “But people just don’t live in South Memphis anymore. There are not a lot of kids.”

He also said the school system shouldn’t avoid closing schools because it doesn’t have a next use for the school building.

“All too often this board gets the full weight of what do we do with the buildings in the neighborhoods,” he told the board. “I would like to think that all of the elected officials can come together.”

School board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. said at the outset that he couldn’t vote to close a single school “unless there is another school opening in it.”

“What’s sad is what we are really saying to the poorest children. We don’t have the money to help y’all,” he added. “But we’ve got the money for everything else we want.”

He also said the school system may not save any money after it prepares for the “culture clashes” that may come with combining high school students in particular from rival parts of the same general area.

“We are basically letting gangs determine where we close schools and where we transfer students,” countered school board member Joe Clayton.

Woods agreed.

“One thing I refuse to do is to be held hostage by culture,” he said. “It is up to us to force that change. … We can’t just kick the can down the road because as of right now these kids don’t get along.”

He also urged board members to vote on the slate of closings as a set instead of separately.

“What you are really doing is having to vote on your community,” Woods said of separate votes. “Let’s make one vote and support it up or down and you do it as a slate.”

The list of 11 schools includes only one Shelby County school. And that was a problem for school board member Tomeka Hart.

“If there are also schools that are outside of the city of Memphis, they need to be at the table too,” she said. “We say it’s not about savings, but the proposal is all about savings. To me this is not complete.”

Hart puts the tally of schools closed in Memphis at 12 since 2005. But former Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash had a much longer list during his four-and-a-half-year tenure that he broke into three pieces once the schools merger movement got rolling in 2011. He delayed the others and later opposed them outright. It was those two other lists that Hopson drew from.

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