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As vote approaches, Shelby County commissioners ask school board to reevaluate closings plans

Supporters of Westhaven Elementary School at County Commission meeting.
Supporters of Westhaven Elementary School at County Commission meeting.
J. Zubrzycki

A day before Shelby County’s school board is scheduled to vote on plans to close as many as 13 schools in Memphis, the county commission voted unanimously to ask board members to reconsider their plans for at least one of those schools.

The commission passed a resolution Monday asking the district’s board to reevaluate their plan to close Westhaven Elementary School. Westhaven is on the list of schools slated to close due mainly to its poor facility conditions. But commission members and school district officials have responded positively to a community proposal that it and two other nearby schools be consolidated into a brand-new building.

The Shelby County school board is slated to vote on superintendent Dorsey Hopson II’s plan for the closures at Tuesday’s board meeting. At last week’s meeting, Hopson hinted that the district’s plans for Westhaven Elementary School, Alcy Elementary School, Riverview Middle School, and Northside High School might change. But he gave no final recommendation to the board and said the decision would likely come down to the wire. Tuesday night’s proposal is likely to look different than the initial plan presented to the board.

The district plans to close the schools due to a combination of underenrollment, low academic performance, and deteriorating facilities, as part of an effort to right-size the district. But at last week’s working session, which came after a series of emotional community meetings, board members raised concerns about many of the plans. This would be the largest set of school closings in one year in the district’s recent history.

Community members have protested the closings in and out of a series of district-coordinated meetings, and Tuesday’s meeting is likely to be well-attended. A dozen supporters of Westhaven Elementary School attended the county commission meeting Monday afternoon. Parent Jackie Love and grandparent Bridget Bradley told commissioners they believe that the school should not be closed.

Westhaven PTO president Bridget Bradley at the Shelby County Commission meeting 2.24.County commission member Justin Ford added the resolution to the commission’s agenda as an add-on item. Ford visited Westhaven last Friday and said he was convinced the district should avoid closing the school due to the school’s positive environment and academic trajectory and in order to prevent the disruption of its large number of special needs students. The school was described as the keystone of a working-class community south of Whitehaven.

“They came to me,” Ford said, when asked why he was supporting Westhaven rather thanother schools slated to close.

The commissioners voted unanimously to support the resolution. Several commissioners spoke approvingly of the show of support and involvement from the protesters.

“You’ve got to keep going,” said Bridget Bradley, the president of Westhaven PTO, after she tearfully addressed the county commission.

Commissioner Mike Ritz said he had spoken with school board members who suggested that the district might propose building a new building on Westhaven’s lot to the commission as soon as Tuesday. The commission must vote to approve new school buildings in the county.

“The board knows they don’t have to do what we ask them to do,” Ritz said. “But we’re also giving them an indication of our preferences at this moment.”

Superintendent Hopson said he supported creating a new school for students from Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven Elementary Schools rather than closing Westhaven at last week’s working session meeting.

The district’s rezoning plans, shaped in reaction to the planned creation of municipal school districts, will not be voted on this week though they were a major topic of discussion at last week’s meeting. The district is starting a process of community hearings about those plans.

The board will also vote on the 2014-15 school year calendar and other items at tomorrow’s meeting. Here’s the full agenda.

The meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Francis E. Coe auditorium Frances E. Coe Auditorium (160 S. Hollywood).

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