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Shelby County school board votes to close Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, spares Memphis STEM Academy

Students wearing backpacks walk under a school awning that says, “Changing lives one mind at a time!”

Shelby County school board members on Wednesday decided to close Memphis Academy of Health Sciences middle and high schools at the end of the school year.

Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

The Shelby County school board decided to close Memphis Academy of Health Sciences at the end of this school year but spared Memphis STEM Academy after hours of impassioned debate at a Wednesday evening meeting.

The board’s move to revoke the charter agreement with the Memphis Academy of Health Science comes just over a month after three former school leaders were indicted on charges of stealing nearly $400,000 for personal use. Corey Johnson, former executive director of the schools, was fired after an internal investigation in December 2019, as were others involved.

Opened in 2003, MAHS was one of the first charters to welcome students in Tennessee and, according to the MAHS website, it serves over 750 students in grades 6-12 at middle and high school campuses.

District administrators’ recommendation to revoke the agreements was based on a December report by the state’s Comptroller of Treasury Office revealing that, between 2015 and 2019, Johnson, along with fellow administrators Robert Williams and Michael Jones allegedly used school money for trips to Las Vegas, a hot tub, seafood, NBA tickets, and auto repair, among other expenses.

While those three former MAHS officials were the ones who allegedly stole from the school, Shelby County Schools officials argued others are also at fault for the school’s mismanagement of its finances. They questioned why other school officials failed to report suspicions of unlawful conduct for more than four years, and accused the MAHS board of directors of failing to provide adequate oversight of school employees.

While current MAHS officials agreed that the alleged crimes of former employees were “egregious,” they disagreed that the board was at fault and called on the board to consider the children and families who would be forced to find another school if MAHS was to close.

Addressing the board directly, an emotional Seandria Evans, chair of MAHS’ Board of Directors, insisted the board had no idea any malfeasance was occurring. The board trusted the school’s leaders, Evans said, and their reviews of budgets and the yearly audits conducted by a third-party revealed no unlawful behavior.

And once the Comptroller’s report came out, Evans said the board took immediate action, finding replacements for the employees who were involved, as well as revising school policies and procedures.

“Revoking our charter now doesn’t hurt anyone but the kids. The only innocent people in this situation are the children who report to school every day and our staff who work hard to take care of them and teach them,” Evans said. “Revoking our charter, displacing our children, interrupting their academic progress is not the answer.”

Ultimately, the board agreed with the district’s administrative recommendation, voting 5-0 to shutter the school. Board member Kevin Woods recused himself from the vote, and board member Billy Orgel was absent from Wednesday’s meeting.

Under state law, MAHS may appeal the decision to the newly formed Tennessee Public Charter School Commission.

While Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love emphasized that the indicted school officials are innocent until proven guilty, she took issue with the school’s lack of communication with the district.

“I think what happened put us in an embarrassing position,” she said. “Someone from that board or someone from that school should have notified Shelby County Schools.”

She and several other board members emphasized that they care about the children and families who will be affected by a closure, but they could not condone public school funds being used inappropriately.

“It is the desire of this board to ensure that every dollar allocated is used for the success of students. That’s why we sit here; that’s our responsibility, to make sure that we do it right,” said board member Althea Greene. “We do care about students, we care about the staff there, but this board has a responsibility.”

Superintendent Joris Ray echoed Greene’s comments and said he and other officials will do their best to find new schools to serve or employ those affected.

“Our arms are open and we’re ready to serve our students and families,” he said.

But to Chiquita Rogers, board members’ words and actions didn’t align. Although Rogers acknowledged that the actions of past school officials were wrong, she feels her daughter and her classmates are being wrongfully punished. 

Since her daughter, Lakya, enrolled at MAHS in sixth grade, Rogers has seen her thrive in the small charter school. Now an 11th grader, Lakya is ranked 16th in her class, Rogers said, and loves her teachers and classmates. Until Wednesday’s vote, Rogers was confident that Lakya was well on her way to college, and to becoming cheer captain at MAHS next year.

“Where does that leave her?” Rogers asked, tears welling in both her and her daughter’s eyes.

Also on Wednesday, the board voted against revoking the charter agreement for Memphis STEM Academy. District officials had recommended closing the North Memphis school because the school had enrolled more students than allowed under its agreement with the district, and the school officials “made no effort to bring itself to compliance” despite the district’s numerous attempts to contact them.

Between October 2020 and January 2021, the school’s enrollment dropped from 338 to 239, according to district materials. But its charter agreement allows a maximum of 204 students.

STEM Academy leaders and several board members remembered the situation differently, though. While everyone agreed the school board directed the school to reduce its enrollment in 2019, school officials recalled being approved for 271 students. 

Despite the misunderstanding, board Chair Michelle McKissack called it “disappointing” that Memphis STEM Academy didn’t work out the issue with the district over the past two years.

But ultimately, she joined her colleagues in the unanimous vote allowing STEM to remain open.

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