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VOL. 124 | NO. 105 | Monday, June 1, 2009

10 Months Later, Cash Still Grapples With School District’s Scope

By Bill Dries

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WHITE ELEPHANT SALE: The old Alonzo Locke Elementary School in the Vance-Pontotoc area is among unused properties the Memphis school system is considering either selling or re-using. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The Memphis school system owns nearly 200 buildings with more than 20 million square feet of space on almost 3,000 acres.

But the school system doesn’t own all of the land, according to a new inventory of city school property. And in schools that house other agencies, there sometimes isn’t a formal lease or written agreement.

Memphis school board members got their first look at the real estate review late last week with recommendations to come later from Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash and his staff.

The comprehensive look at the school district’s real estate assets is evidence of the vastness of the school system. It’s also part of Cash’s continuing effort to get a handle on a sweeping school system bureaucracy 10 months after becoming its leader.

Back-burner to front-burner

Memphis school board president Tomeka Hart told The Daily News the inventory was called for years ago, but was interrupted by the school system’s rapid change in leadership in the past four years.

HAD ITS DAY: Shown is a side view of Alonzo Locke. City school board members got an inventory of all the school system’s property last week. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

“This is the beginning of getting a handle on it,” she said. “We started realizing, does anybody know what we own?”

Some school land in areas annexed by the city decades ago still shows up on records as the property of the Shelby County school system.

The football field at Raleigh Egypt High School and the baseball field at Fairley High School are shown as the property of the Shelby County Conservation Board. Talks are under way with the board for the transfer of the title to the city.

Leases exist for three cell towers on city school property, but Denise Sharpe, coordinator of the school system’s Office of Comprehensive Planning, described them as “underperforming by today’s standards.”

Sharpe said some of the agreements to use school space were informal and reflected the power school principals had in past years to make such arrangements.

Cash referred to the property report as the “state of potpourri.”

School board member Dr. Jeff Warren said the tangle of unspoken agreements and unrecorded transfers is “classic of the way business has been done in the South for years and years.”

Beyond gentlemen’s agreements

Tentative recommendations include declaring some of the property surplus and selling it at market value. In many cases, several options are listed for now.

Some fit in with Cash’s stated goals of building more pre-kindergarten classrooms as well as reconfiguring high schools into regional centers of learning, with each devoted to a particular field of study.

Cash said he will present a formal set of recommendations later this year.

The early recommendations include:

  • Selling 13 parcels of a combined 1.62 acres around William H. Brewster Elementary School in Binghampton for new housing or build a pre-K center on the land.
  • Selling 66 acres of land donated to the school system as the future site of a middle school in Scenic Hills or leasing the site for cell phone towers.
  • Demolishing the vacant Alonzo Locke Elementary School in the Vance-Pontotoc area south of Downtown and selling the 1.26 acres for housing or using the site for some kind of specialty school.
  • Renovating for a pre-K center or selling the .33 acres where the old VFW hall now stands at Fourth Street and Court Ave. The school system bought it in 1999 for $255,500 for construction of Downtown Elementary School. It has remained vacant since then.
  • Building a transportation terminal or school on 24.36 acres across Hickory Hill Road from Hickory Ridge Elementary. Other possible uses include selling the land or leasing it for cell towers.
  • Leasing, renovating or selling the 6.42 acres where the original Southside High School and Lincoln Junior High once stood. The gym still stands and is leased to the Boys Club, which built a neighboring baseball field. The Boys Club also owns one of the five parcels of land that comprises the lot.

Openings for closures

Hart said the comprehensive survey of real estate holdings also should change the discussion about the school system’s capital needs and funding for such construction projects. Selling some of the property could generate one-time-only funding for such projects.

Looking at all of the school system’s real estate as a set could lead to a more comprehensive plan, instead of what some critics have said is a drive to build schools to deal with a sudden bulge of school-aged children in a part of the city. The bulge could shift to another area, leaving an underused school in later years.

“When we talk in this community about closing schools, it’s about space and capacity,” Hart told The Daily News. “Schools systems all the time have to think about closing schools. But you have to think about it in terms of how it relates to academic achievement.”

PROPERTY SALES 66 66 6,612
MORTGAGES 78 78 4,207
BUILDING PERMITS 158 158 16,073
BANKRUPTCIES 45 45 3,441