Shelby County Schools board members completed Tuesday, Feb. 25, the first half of their actions to prepare the new map of the demerged school system for the academic year that begins in August. And they set the stage for more possible changes in years to come.
The set of votes to close 10 schools at the end of the current academic year came before an audience of several hundred people that overflowed into another meeting room and grew noisier as the trend in the board votes became apparent.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson drove the neighborhoods affected by the closings before Tuesday’s vote and said he was “shocked” at the configuration of so many small, under-utilized schools in close proximity to one another.
“You’ve got five schools all within walking distance of each other – none of them with the achievement that we all want for our kids,” Hopson said of the North Memphis neighborhood that includes Gordon Elementary School. “It suggests to me that what we have been doing is not helping kids. … I know these principals work hard at these schools. This is not a shot at them. I know the teachers are working hard.”
Hopson said his recommendations weren’t based on savings to the school system but instead on academic achievement and the possibility of improving achievement in schools that are able to offer more programs because they have a greater number of students.
The board could vote at its March 25 meeting on a set of two dozen changes to attendance zones that would affect approximately 7,000 other students.
Hopson’s final recommendation on school closings Tuesday included some changes from his preliminary recommendation last year, leaving open the possibility that some of the schools spared could be back on the block as early as a year from now.
In approving Hopson’s final recommendation, the board gave a one-year reprieve on closing Northside High School, removed Alcy Elementary School from the closing list completely and kept Riverview Middle School open but closed neighboring Riverview Elementary to make Riverview Middle a kindergarten through eighth-grade school starting in August.
The Riverview K-8 school to come complicates the school system’s previous strategy for Carver High School and puts the South Memphis high school on the same bubble as Northside.
The preliminary recommendation had been to merge Riverview Middle into Carver and make Carver a sixth- through 12th-grade school.
The board approved the closing of Westhaven Elementary School in Southwest Memphis for the coming school year and sending students to nearby Fairley and Raineshaven elementary schools.
But the board also voted to seek capital funding from the Shelby County Commission in the coming budget season to build a new facility on the site of Westhaven that would replace all three schools in the area.
The present Westhaven facility will be demolished. Structural issues prompted Hopson to recommend the closing of a building he described as being in the worst condition of any school building in the system.
School board member Shante Avant pushed to keep Westhaven Elementary open for the 2014-2015 school year and build the new school on a different part of the site. She and board member Teresa Jones voted against all of the closings.
Hopson urged the board to close Westhaven because of the logistics of using portable classrooms and difficulties the school system has encountered in similar construction scenarios.
Other board members questioned what the school system would do if the County Commission does not approve funding for a new Westhaven Elementary, at least for the new fiscal year. Board member David Pickler thought it unlikely the commission would fund any new school construction.
“We have to move forward based on what we know. It’s a hard reality. The facts are out there,” he said. “We cannot depend or expect that any kind of funding will be coming from the County Commission.”
However, the board also voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution by Avant that calls on the commission to fund a new Westhaven school. And most on the board were vocal in calling for the commission to put up the money.
“It is time for us to realize this community has been neglected,” said school board Chairman Kevin Woods in urging citizens to call county commissioners to push for the funding. “This is an election year. Hold them accountable.”
Hopson suggested the school system could get the one-time capital money if the city of Memphis would pay the $57 million it owes the school system through a Chancery Court judgment that is on hold because of a counterclaim by the city.