In neighborhoods struggling to stay alive, there’s nothing more painful than cuts in public services and closing of public facilities.
In education, every dollar spent on inefficient and redundant facilities is a dollar that can’t be spent in the classroom.
It is the truth of these two realities that makes the potential of closing schools in Memphis so visceral, volatile, and combative. Even though most families in neighborhoods have no children in school, their presence is seen as a hub for community, an institution that’s the tenuous thread holding together neighborhoods.
The parents, however, are propelled by two of the most important things in their lives – their neighborhoods and their children. More than anything, however, in neighborhoods where residents feel beset by challenging trends, the instinct is simply to oppose anything that involves a change in the status quo (even if it’s not working for them).
The city school board has waded into this thicket with proposals to close anywhere from six to 21 schools as it takes responsibility for the new countywide district. The board’s focus, as it should be, is on teaching and learning, and that’s why it has asked City of Memphis government to work with it to consider alternative uses for as many as 21 schools to be closed. It’s a tall order of course, because these are sizable buildings and there just aren’t enough neighborhood-based, alternative uses that make its overhead costs make sense.
It’s hard to argue with the school board’s attention to developing a system that is efficient and effective, particularly since the populations and densities of many of the affected neighborhoods have fallen as much as 50%. As a result, a number of schools – and other public facilities – are now located in the wrong places, and there are even sections of Memphis where elementary schools within walking distance have capacities less than 50%, making it especially hard to argue that they should remain open for their neighborhoods’ benefit.
It’s the worst-kept secret of Memphis City Schools that there has been justification for closing a dozen or more schools since the days when Carol Johnson was superintendent, but regularly, the administrative staff and elected boards blinked when faced with outcries from neighborhoods and the district opted instead to pay for schools that are not even half-full.
It’s been a few years since we reviewed capacities of Memphis City Schools, but we expect that the results remain unchanged: 42 schools have more than 100% capacity and 21 schools are below 50%. Seven schools were below 40% and three of these were below 30%. Ideal enrollment is about 85%.
From 1980 to 2000, Whitehaven saw the number of youths go down 6,400; in South Memphis, the number went down 11,000, and in North Memphis, the number dropped 7,100. Unfortunately, because these demographic changes aren’t discussed with the public or highlighted in public policy debates, neighborhoods are regularly shocked when their schools are put on the “to be closed” list because there aren’t enough students any more to make the schools financial feasible.
But the problems with city schools are not limited just to capacities. The benign neglect of Shelby County Government – whose capital funding for schools was always motivated by county schools rather than city schools – has left too many schools inside the city in unacceptable condition. For years, Memphis City Schools has had documented needs of close to $500 million, but the county schools tail continued to wag the city schools dog to the point that there was never a plan advanced to address the needs of city schools.
In other words, despite all the political rhetoric of Memphis City Schools getting a windfall in funding as a result of the Average Daily Attendance requirements, the funding never responded to the physical demands of an aging system.
Neglect and Indifference
Schools should not be symbols of neglect and indifference. This creates a social cost that is greater than the cost of capital improvements, and it is unfair and inequitable to the students who attend substandard schools. In Memphis, about 30 schools fall into the “worst” category when buildings are evaluated as part of the Physical Facilities Assessment process.
The overall system ranks as fair, and 29 schools have deferred maintenance of more than $2 million with a high of $11 million. About 10 city schools are more than 100 years old, which means that while we work to get all schools squarely into the age of the Internet, we have schools built before there was even radio.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that after decades of failing to provide the capital funding needed by Memphis City Schools, county government will now – in the midst of the challenges of a new district – develop a plan to meet these considerable needs.
It’s also hard to make a case for why underused, often under physically substandard, schools should remain open. Hopefully, the school board for the new school district will throw out conventional thinking and consider new ways to respond to the physical needs of Memphis schools. It’s time to get serious about the joint use of expensive school facilities so they are used by students during the work day and by the community after school hours and on weekends, 12 months of the year.
For almost 70 years, New York City has entered into agreements with its school district for joint use of school property. A school in Glendale, California, is being used also as a community center, library, and park. In San Diego, school facilities are being used as a performance annex, a Head Start facility, a continuing education center, a tennis center, an aquatic center, and a community center.
In Maryland, a school and a senior citizens facility are sharing space. In Maine, a school is used as a community center for three nearby towns and includes a restaurant, an adult education center, a performing arts center, and a health clinic.
The past practice of schools as single-use facilities evolved from the old Industrial Age model of education that isolated schools from the community. In a time of scarce public funding, it doesn’t make any sense to lock up costly buildings two-thirds of the day and one-quarter of the year.
If the school board is trying to sell its plan for closing schools, it needs also to sell the fact that new approaches to the use of schools will usher Memphis into an era in which use of expensive public buildings are maximized. Over the long haul, multiple uses could be the best thing that could happen to Memphis neighborhoods.