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Analysis: High maintenance costs drive latest proposed school closings in Memphis

Goodlett Elementary School needs a new boiler. It needs a new roof too, just a few of the costly upgrades on a long list of maintenance needs totaling about $4 million.

In fact, according to data released in May, the southeast Memphis school, built in 1964, is the least efficient building in Shelby County Schools, making it long overdue for district leaders to step in.

Last week, they did, as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson unveiled a proposal to build a new Goodlett, along with new buildings for Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle. The construction would be part of a significant overhaul that would close seven schools, some of whose students would be shifted to the new buildings.

Hopson told school board members last Wednesday that costly maintenance issues were the key driver in his first volley at addressing the district’s aging and bloated facilities footprint, which needs to shed up to 24 schools in the next five years.

That’s contrary to his earlier pledge to focus on improving academics when making such decisions, putting enrollment and aging buildings as secondary considerations.

Hopson argues that this first volley isn’t part of the bigger discussion to come about closing schools, which will focus primarily on academics. “These are schools where you have some of the highest (maintenance needs) in the city and where it’s just inefficient to operate these schools,” he said.

Of the three construction/consolidation projects proposed by Hopson, Goodlett is the outlier. It’s mostly about the high cost of building maintenance, while the other two projects are more aligned with all three criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to rejigger its schools: academics, under-enrollment and maintenance.

Under Hopson’s plan, the new Goodlett Elementary would open as early as 2018 and would absorb students from Knight Road Elementary, along with some from Sheffield and Getwell. Current buildings for Goodlett and Knight Road would be demolished.

While neither Goodlett or Knight Road have a glowing academic performance, both schools are not in danger of state takeover like about a dozen others in the city. In 2014, Goodlett was even recognized by the state as a “reward school” for academic growth.

Instead of being under-enrolled, Goodlett and Knight Road are overcrowded, with nearly twice as many students as the buildings were designed for. Knight Road, built in 1959, also needs a lot of work. It’s ranked the district’s eighth least efficient building.

By contrast, Woodstock, which would be rebuilt and reconfigured into a K-12 school in rural northwest Memphis, is in danger of state takeover because of poor student test scores. It’s severely under-enrolled and needs maintenance work, though it’s not considered among the district’s most inefficient buildings.

With its new building, Woodstock would take in students from Lucy and Northaven elementary schools. Northaven is in danger of dropping to the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state and is also under-enrolled. It has about $2.2 million in deferred maintenance needs. Lucy is also a low-performing school, though not low enough to provoke state intervention. It is under-enrolled as well, with $2.2 million worth of deferred maintenance.

Alcy, which would be rebuilt on the same property, is a low-performing school in danger of state takeover. It’s under-enrolled and has high building needs.

Under the Alcy consolidation, Hopson proposes to close Magnolia and Charjean elementary schools and move those students to Alcy’s new building as early as 2018. Magnolia is a low-performing school that’s under-enrolled and has relatively low building needs. Charjean is overcrowded, but rose to the level of urgency because of its high maintenance needs totaling $3.3 million. The 1950 school building ranks third in the district in inefficiency.

Hopson says his building proposals would make investments in communities that have been neglected for decades.

“We’ve got to start thinking about equity here in Memphis. And if you look at these communities, these are places where nobody has invested in a very long time,” he said. “Given the enrollment and conditions of the facilities, we want to move forward.”

But the proposals aren’t a done deal. The school board will review them at its Nov. 29 work session, and members will cast their first of two votes on the school closures Dec. 6. Several community meetings would follow. Hopson hopes to take the plans to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in December to ask for $15 million for each new school.

Picking his two children up from school last week at Goodlett Elementary, parent Jeremy Arris said his kids haven’t complained about the condition of their school building or overcrowding. He’s happy with the teachers and culture. And he’s OK with Hopson’s plan too, especially since his children wouldn’t have to move while a new school is being built.

“It’s fine with me,” Arris said. “I don’t want to send my kids anywhere else.”