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Shelby County board members address personal attacks, charges of racism at school closings meeting

Community members at a meeting hosted by Shelby County school board
Community members at a meeting hosted by Shelby County school board
J. Zubrzycki

Shelby County school board members and superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II addressed residents’ accusations that the planned closings of 13 schools are racially motivated during a meeting at Westhaven Elementary School Tuesday.

“There is no conspiracy to undermine the black community,” Hopson said. “When I hear stuff like, this is a race issue, it’s offensive…Shelby County Schools has the population it does, and most of the kids in Shelby County Schools look like me.”

The district is considering closing as many as 13 schools in Memphis before the 2014-15 school year due to a combination of declining enrollment, low academic achievement, and deteriorating facilities. Most of those closings are in predominantly black areas. This was the seventh community meeting about the closings out of nine scheduled by the board.

At each meeting so far, speakers have told the board that impact of school closings has historically fallen in black communities. “The district has never closed a predominantly Caucasian school,” said Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, at meetings at both Northside High School and at Westhaven.

Board members have not publicly responded to accusations that the decisions about what schools will close are based on race at previous meetings.

The complaints made about the impact of closings on black communities are not unique to Memphis. Last year, groups in six cities filed complaints with the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that school closings have a disparate impact on minority communities.

District officials said Tuesday that Westhaven was put on the list of schools to close due to the deteriorating quality of its building. Westhaven PTA president Bridget Bailey asked the board to consider creating a new school building.

Several speakers referred to improvements in suburban areas or northern parts of town as evidence that the district has been ignoring African-Americans. Others said the plans indicated that the board members did not care about Westhaven students.

One man asked the four board members present where their children went to school. Another speaker accused board president Kevin Woods of arrogance.

Superintendent Hopson stepped in:

Hopson said he respected attendees for coming to the meeting to voice their concerns. He asked the community to channel its energies into helping its children learn to read.

“Seventy-odd percent are not reading at grade-level…I’m not making this up,” he said. “I’m from Memphis. It sickens me to see these numbers. We as a community have to make sure we band together to make sure all these babies are prepared for a future that’s going to require them to be prepared to read.”

After attendees had spoken, the four board members who were present responded. “My community that has to vote for me is out East,” Woods said, growing emotional. “But I care about the community here too.”

“Just because we sit on the other side of this table does not mean we do not care,” said Teresa Jones. “Everything you say, I take into consideration. And I don’t sleep some nights because I want to make the right decision. I understand what happens if a child does not get a quality education.”

“I could care less what somebody’s skin color is,” Chris Caldwell said. “I’ve asked the administration for dollars and cents to make sure if we’re going to disrupt any family, it has some benefit to a greater group of kids.”

“As your representative of this district, I am advocating what is best for the kids of Westhaven,” said Shante Avant.

Here’s board member Woods’ response:

And here are Chris Caldwell and Shante Avant.

Hopson emphasized that the board is currently considering recommendations from the district and has not made any decisions. The board plans to vote on the proposed closings later this month.

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