After years of advocating for the construction of a state-of-the-art high school in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood, Regenia Dowell thought it was finally going to happen this spring.
In tandem with its 2022-23 budget approved in May, Memphis-Shelby County Schools officials proposed spending about $22 million to break ground on a replacement for Trezevant High School, which has one of the highest deferred maintenance bills of any other public school in the city.
But that proposal hinged on the district’s request for $55 million in capital improvement funds from Shelby County. When commissioners decided this month to grant MSCS less than half that amount, district officials were forced to put off the project for at least another year. Dowell was heartbroken.
“It’s hard when you’ve been working all these years and you can see it, but you can’t touch it,” said Dowell, treasurer of the Frayser community’s parent-teacher-student association. “Our children need this; they need to know they’re valued. They see other schools and see that their school is not nearly as nice as those schools. Why can’t it be like that here?”
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The new Frayser high school is one of several MSCS construction projects currently paused as the district dials back its capital spending plans in response to the funding setback. On Tuesday, during a specially called meeting, the MSCS board unanimously approved a revised $2.1 billion budget that puts those projects in limbo and strips out more than $10 million in other planned projects.
Administrators had hoped the $55 million fiscal year 2023 allotment would be the first installment of a 10-year, $550 million commitment from the county to address decades of deferred facility maintenance and update aging school buildings. Over 33 MSCS schools were built before 1950, meaning the buildings are 70 or more years old.
“We have kids that are going into bathrooms that have not been renovated since 1950. They’re learning in science labs that have not been renovated since 1950,” Patrice Thomas, the district’s chief of staff, told the County Commission during its June 6 meeting.
But the commission approved only $21 million of the $55 million request, calling on the district to liquidate assets or build its case for raising taxes countywide to generate funds.
It marks the second year that MSCS has had to delay several flagship projects from its Reimagining 901 school improvement and facility plan. Last summer, the county similarly balked at the district’s $55 million request, citing the federal COVID relief aid flowing into the school system. Some commissioners also voiced concern about the effect that level of spending could have on the county’s finances and taxpayers.
Frayser community concerned about construction delay
The current Trezevant High School in Frayser serves more than 500 students across grades 9-12 — most of whom are Black and come from low-income families.
The new high school was to be the first of five new schools in the Reimagining 901 plan unveiled last year, and was targeted for 2025 completion at a projected cost of about $89 million.
The district planned to build the school on existing school property — either at the Trezevant site or at Martin Luther King Preparatory High School, part of the Frayser Community Schools charter network.
In the spring, the MSCS board agreed to spend about $3 million drafting designs and plans for the new campus. The board also spent millions to do the same for two other proposed schools: A Treadwell K-8 that would combine Treadwell elementary and middle schools, and an Orange Mound K-8 that would combine Bethel Grove, Cherokee, and Dunbar elementary schools. Those schools had targeted completion dates of 2026 and 2027, respectively.
The district’s $55 million request to the county called for nearly $22 million just to break ground on the Frayser high school. Yet the county’s total allocation to the district amounted to about $1 million less than that.
Now, it’s unclear when MSCS will be able to complete the new Frayser high school, or the next two schools in line for construction. During the Tuesday board meeting, Toni Williams, the district’s chief financial officer, said she hopes to begin construction on the high school in 2024.
But Dowell remains uneasy. Although district officials have assured her that they remain committed to the project, she worries it won’t happen unless the County Commission has a massive change of heart in future years.
Dowell wishes MSCS could find the funds for the school in its own budget.
“I feel like we are being held hostage here in Frayser by the funding situation,” she said.
For Bobby White, founder and CEO of Frayser Community Schools, the new school represented new possibilities for the children of Frayser.
While the neighborhood already has three high schools — Frayser Community Schools’ M.L.K College Prep, Trezevant, and Memphis Business Academy — White envisioned a comprehensive high school providing families with another educational option and children with more opportunities.
For example, he hoped more students would be able to take classes in languages besides Spanish — like Latin or Mandarin, as offered in MSCS high schools like White Station or Central, and have more access to college, career and technical education courses, as in other Memphis schools.
Still, White says he’s optimistic for the neighborhood he grew up in.
“We’re not going to allow this to derail our focus on trying to provide a quality education at Trezevant, MLK, and (Memphis Business Academy),” he said.
Other changes in revised budget
In MSCS’ revised 2022-23 school year budget adopted Tuesday, officials also slashed $5 million of gym and safety renovations at Richland Elementary, another $5 million for a new stadium at Tobey Park, and cut about $480,000 from a stadium improvement project at Raleigh Egypt High School.
Maintenance and facility upgrade projects that remain in the district’s new capital improvement budget for 2023 include:
- $5.1 million for new intercom systems at several schools
- $5.1 million for new heating and air systems at Snowden K-8
- $3.1 million to replace the roof at Peabody Elementary
- $3 million to increase outdoor lighting at various schools
- $1 million for the Raleigh Egypt stadium project
In an interview last week, school board Vice Chair Althea Greene said that she’s disappointed MSCS didn’t get all of the funding it asked for, but that she understands that county commissioners have “way more asks than they have funds to disburse.”
She cautioned district families that concerns about school maintenance, modernization, and beautification projects may not be addressed as quickly as the district had hoped.
“We can only spend what’s allocated to us,” Greene told Chalkbeat. “When it comes to deferred maintenance, we will continue to be behind, because we continue to not get enough funding to get ahead.”
Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at email@example.com.