School Board Starts Process on School Closings-Transformations

By Bill Dries

Countywide school board members voted Thursday, Nov. 29, to begin the process of considering the closing of four elementary schools in western Memphis and the conversion of two other inner city schools in what amounts to a move to compete with the Achievement School District.

The vote at a special meeting of the board begins a process that will include a detailed “school impact study” as well as public hearings in the affected areas of southwest and northwest Memphis. The board should take a final vote on the recommendations in March that would either close the schools or keep them open for the 2013-2014 school year.

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

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash also recommended and the board gave preliminary approval to closing Humes Middle School and moving its 7th and 8th 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 ASD. 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.

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

It was based on schools using 80 percent or less of their capacity in terms of students.

Cash and his staff disagreed with the savings estimate and say the slate approved by the school board Thursday should produce an estimated $5 million in savings.

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

Some board members indicated their “yes” votes in the six individual roll call votes do not necessarily mean they will support closings or conversions come March.

Meanwhile, board chairman Billy Orgel raised the possibility that the school board might have to push aside the schools steering committee that is sifting through the planning commission recommendations if the group of staff from both school systems continue to depart from planning commission recommendations to save money.

The slate of school closings approved Thursday came from the steering committee group.

“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 soon to be merged school district.

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.”