About seven months after the outgoing leader left Shelby County Schools with a major school facilities plan, the new superintendent says the district needs to listen more before making any more decisions.
Superintendent Joris Ray introduced a proposal last week that he wants to implement before deciding whether to move forward with Dorsey Hopson’s plan to consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings. Ray’s proposal was part of a presentation to the board summarizing his first 90 days as the district’s leader.
Hopson, who was superintendent for six years before leaving in January, created his plan hoping to avoid massive deferred maintenance costs on the district’s crumbling campuses. If implemented, it could take up to 10 years and affect some 15,000 students.
But Ray is saying, not so fast.
“Who here knows what the footprint analysis is?” Ray rhetorically asked a crowd at last week’s school board meeting. The room was quiet. The district’s footprint analysis looks at where students and school buildings are located to help guide future recommendations for school closures.
Shelby County Schools has already taken a first step in Hopson’s plan. The school board voted in March to rezone 700 students at five Memphis schools, a small portion of Hopson’s plan to rezone some 3,200 students to schools closer to home.
Board member Miska Clay Bibbs said she agrees that there needs to be a larger conversation with the community about why Memphis’ school buildings are in such need of repair.
“People just know that the buildings are old and need to be worked on,” Bibbs said. “They think that if we just put a couple of dollars toward it, it would be better. But people don’t understand how to get to decision over whether to close or consolidate. We have so many old schools with so much need.”
It will cost the district more than $500 million to repair its buildings, and the high cost is not unique to Memphis. In Detroit, a report released by the district last year said more than $500 million was needed to fix crumbling facilities — a conclusion that one board member called “tragically awful.” Across the country, Colorado’s 178 school districts need a massive $14 billion in infrastructure repairs.
Paying for and managing the repairs that have grown worse for years is no small issue. But a longtime Orange Mound resident and grandmother of a rising Memphis ninth grader wants the opportunity to have a say in how it gets done.
“What’s as important as community input is what they do with that input,” Claudette Boyd said. “Are they listening just to say they listened? Or can we have real impact on this plan? That’s what I still don’t know.”
Ray praised the rezoning, as well as the board’s decision to combine an elementary school into a middle school, and the board’s recommendation to close six charter schools under Shelby County Schools.
But he emphasized that before any more steps are taken, he wants more community input and to discuss the issue with the Achievement School District, whose 28 Memphis schools weren’t considered in Hopson’s proposal.
The Achievement School District was created to turn around low-performing schools by taking them from local districts and giving them to charter school operators to run.
Sharon Griffin, chief of the achievement district, and charter leaders have asked for more collaboration with the Memphis district on buildings, because charter schools are responsible for day-to-day maintenance costs. Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes like new roofs, or heating and air conditioning systems.
While tensions between the two districts have flared in the past over building repairs, Ray seems poised to continue to move the relationship to a more amicable place.
“[Shelby County Schools] leaders and I are talking about facility upgrades, but I’m interested in us creating a plan to address building and enrollment issues that arrive,” Griffin said earlier this year. “We’re looking at addressing the conditions of the buildings we occupy.”
For his part, Ray said he wants to give Memphis schools “the best teachers and school buildings.”
“We’re looking at all underutilized and underperforming schools,” Ray said after the meeting. “Our plan is to lead with the best academic options for students.”
His presentation comes in the middle of budget season, when the district is asking the county commission, its funding body, to contribute more to its budget for facilities.
You can find Ray’s full 90-day report to the board here.