The first of three of the most politically challenging decisions the countywide school board has to make about the consolidation of public schools probably won’t happen this week.
Instead of taking a first preliminary vote Thursday, Nov. 29, to close 21 schools by the August merger date, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash is asking the board to start a set of “impact studies” and schedule public hearings for closing five elementary schools.
Cash’s set of recommendations would also turn Humes Middle School over to the state-run Achievement School District.
Along with votes to come on outsourcing transportation services and custodial services, the three recommendations by the schools consolidation planning commission last summer produce the biggest savings, $60 million, of the still tentative merger plan.
But as Cash outlined a longer process Monday, Nov. 26, for a decision involving fewer schools, there were other signs the issue of closing schools won’t be made easily or rapidly.
Two veteran Memphis Democratic state legislators say the process that led to the recommendation to close 21 Memphis City Schools is part of the transition to a schools merger hasn’t been transparent enough.
State Reps. G.A. Hardaway and Barbara Cooper called for more openness four months after the consolidation planning commission that recommended the closings made its final report. The planning commission discussed the idea for several months before that.
Hardaway said some neighborhoods in the western part of the city where the school-age population is moving away from are “literally teetering on the brink of collapse.”
“There is no way that education can be improved in a vacuum,” he said. “If there is to be a holistic approach to improving our educational system … as opposed to trying to put one together at a discount and operate it on the cheap, then we must include those who actually make the decisions and provide the funding for the other social determinants that surround our children.”
Like Hardaway, Cooper said her problem is with the process and did not take a stand one way or the other on school closings in general.
“I’m against school closings if we don’t know where they are going,” said Cooper, a retired Memphis City Schools teacher.
Later, Cooper acknowledged she is opposed to moves in the merger that would mean the loss of jobs for teachers or others school system employees.
“Some of them are going to be out of jobs,” she said. “Is there a plan for them so that we won’t have further unemployment or further children or families homeless? We have about 1,200 homeless families now.”
Hardaway and Cooper both called for Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and city Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb to be involved in the school closing discussion.
Hardaway specifically said Wharton had been excluded.
Wharton said later he and Lipscomb have been consulted by Cash.
“We will present a listing of schools on Thursday evening that will be considerably fewer than the 20 unnamed schools recommended for closure by the (planning commission),” Cash said. “Any vote taken on Thursday night will only begin the process of conducting the impact studies and the series of community meetings in just the same manner as was done last year. No schools will be closed on Thursday night.”
The process of studies and public hearings in the affected communities is one Memphis City Schools has used for the closing of Georgia Avenue Elementary and the consolidation of Caldwell and Guthrie elementary schools in recent years.
“We know that, done right, the process works,” Cash said.
The planning commission recommendations were based on utilization rates of the schools – the number of students attending a school and the number of students a school has the capacity to hold.
The school impact studies to be conducted by school system staff would look at other factors including “impact on the quality of life in the community” and “time, distance and cost of student transportation.”
The planning commission did not include a specific list of the schools it proposed for closing “in order to give the Shelby County Board of Education flexibility in selection with input from the community,” according to the recommendation sent to the school board this summer.
The recommendation, in general, calls for: closing six schools in Northwest Memphis (three elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools) and closing 15 in Southwest Memphis (seven elementary schools, six middle schools and two high schools).