In a district plagued by shrinking funding and enrollment, proposals to close schools have become an annual rite of spring for Shelby County Schools, where the school board is again faced with the prospect of shuttering more Memphis campuses.
This spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has recommended closing two more schools at the close of the school year. However, based on discussions during last week’s board work session, the proposed closures appear to be more clear-cut than the emotionally charged closings of past years.
No protest signs were waved and the crowd was light. The work session was held during the district’s spring break week but, even so, board members didn’t dispute recommendations by Hopson’s administration.
The school board is expected on Tuesday evening to approve the closure of Memphis Health Careers Academy and to begin the process of revoking a charter that will close the two campuses of New Consortium for Law and Business. The latter is a district-authorized charter school operated by SMART Schools Inc., and Hopson has recommended for a second straight year that its charter be revoked. Last July, the board voted narrowly to give the operator a one-year reprieve to address complaints of mismanagement.
The board also is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a massive maintenance deferral plan that identifies and prioritizes $476 million in critical facility repairs for the next five years.
Twenty Memphis schools have been shuttered since 2012, including three last year as the cash-strapped district dealt with a $125 million deficit. Hopson announced last week that the district faces an $86 million budget gap next fiscal year, up from an earlier estimate of $72 million, and he is proposing $50 million in cuts.
Beyond the two school closings recommended in a March 22 report, district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent said she was not aware of the school system exploring additional closings this year.
Memphis Health Careers Academy opened in 2008 with a goal of maintaining a 250-student enrollment and equipping students for certification for a career in health-related fields. But the current enrollment is just 74 students, and only three students left the school with any type of certification last school year.
Additionally, the academy achieved a TVAAS growth score of only 2 out of 5 last school year, down from a 4 the previous school year.
“With the Memphis Health Careers Academy, most importantly is that the academic performance is not consistent with its mission,” said Hopson, noting that the school employs 17 educators to teach 74 students. “That’s not, in our judgment, an efficient use of taxpayers’ money,” he said.
Shelby County Schools authorized the charter for New Consortium for Law and Business in 2013 as a school of excellence for law and business education. But the school has struggled with enrollment, standardized test scores and teacher turnover. Last year, Hopson recommended closure following a district investigation for multiple violations, including failing to pay its staff for an entire month and enrolling staff illegally in a non-district insurance plan. However, board members were reticent to close the school as a new school year was about to begin, which would have forced parents to scramble to find a new school late in the enrollment process.
“At the time, our board was clear that, if the infractions continued, we would come back in March; we would move forward with the discussion of revoking the charter,” Hopson said.
District leaders say that, since that time, the consortium has continued to violate both state statutes and its charter agreement with Shelby County Schools, including accusations that the school failed to file financial audits for a second consecutive year, listed at least two students as enrolled last year while they were enrolled in other schools, failed to enter student attendance data for the first 48 days of this year, and assigned students to a teacher who did not teach them.
In addition, the school scored only 1 out of 5 in TVAAS growth for both 2014 and 2015, and its academic performance puts it in the bottom 3 percent of all schools in the state, according to district documents.
In an open letter to board members, school founder and executive director Tommie Henderson accused the district of “reckless behavior” and efforts to disrupt school operations. Shelby County Schools “strategically works against our charter school,” Henderson wrote.
Hopson said he “utterly disputes” Henderson’s accusations.
The district has scheduled community meetings next month to guide parents through their options if the closures are approved. Meetings on the consortium are planned for April 7 and April 14, and a meeting on the academy is set for April 12.
The five-year deferred maintenance plan would set priorities through 2021 based on an architectural assessment of district-owned buildings that total 22 million square feet. Roofing repairs alone would cost more than $67 million, fire systems and electronic intercoms warrants another $59 million.
The advanced age of many buildings was an important factor as the assessment found more than $476 million in needed repairs, noting that “many building systems and structure are original … and have far exceeded their life expectancy.” In fact, out of 182 schools in the district, 143 are 40 years or older, the assessment said.
Tennessee is one of 12 states that does not provide state funding toward facility maintenance and construction, according to a new report. The same report estimates the government is spending $46 billion less a year than is needed to ensure students have safe and environmentally sound schools.