Sadly, the city school board members blinked, never seeming to understand it was because the county school board’s finger was in their eye.
Instead of ushering in a badly needed “new day” for school location decisions, in the end, Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners seemed to go along to get along. While the news media concentrate on relationships between some local elected officials and one developer that are way too cozy, those stories pale in comparison to the Shelby County School Board’s absolute intimacy with a bunch of them.
Over the past 15 years, the board has repeatedly allowed developers to pick its school sites and in essence pick the pockets of county taxpayers. County school locations decisions have literally put millions of dollars into the pockets of politically connected developers while fueling sprawl that our grandchildren will pay for.
That’s why it was so easy to be hopeful that finally the Memphis City Schools would bring a dose of reality into this process. Instead, after intensive lobbying by developers and the same people in county government who also brought us the fiscally unwise Arlington High School, the city board members unanimously voted to accept the school site picked by its county counterparts, although it did vote to reconsider the size of the tract and its price.
It’s too bad, because if there’s ever been a school site that so egregiously exemplifies the stranglehold that development interests have on the county board, this was it. It’s easier to justify Dr. Kevorkian as an emergency room physician than to justify the site at Hacks Cross Road and Shelby Drive.
It’s the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, it’s the wrong price and it’s for the wrong reasons.
After all, an objective reading of the enrollments of the “overcrowded schools” and their capacities undercuts the justification for the new school building boom in Southeast Shelby. Those charts indicate that four schools now proposed so vigorously by the county school board are to handle capacities that are exceeded by about 100 students.
It’s no wonder that some members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners have expressed misgivings about the official reasons given for the new schools. Despite all the protestations by county school officials to the contrary, it’s hard to get around the feeling that all of this is being done to move the large number of African-American students who travel to Germantown schools every day back outside that town’s limits.
As for the location, it’s hard to imagine a worse site for a school. Imagine, Shelby County Schools actually believes that the best site for a high schools is the most dangerous intersection in Southeast Shelby County and one of the county’s worst. The prospects of dumping hundreds of teenaged drivers into the chaotic mix there will make it the #1 place to avoid in the future. Eventually, the seven lanes of Winchester Road running east and west will cross the seven lanes of Hacks Cross Road will be an obstacle course for students crossing the road to school or running over to the Walgreens and the gas station across the street for a snack.
Then, there is the question of why the county school board wants to buy a site that is 50 percent larger than the standard for the nation. Rather than buy only what they need – about 40 acres – county schools officials want 60 acres, a requirement that baffled even its supporters on the city school board. Commissioner Tomeka Hart, in particular, seemed baffled that the while the city school district will inherit the high school in a few years, the size of the acreage is being determined by the county board members.
Meanwhile, the county school district’s plans continue its traditional tendency to warehouse county students. Once again, it bucks national trends to opt for a 2,000-student school. Progressive systems are moving to smaller, more manageable facilities, and in fact, Dr. Johnson has espoused such an approach.
All of these are troubling enough, but it’s the adamant attitude that David Pickler has toward the price of the land that is the most unnerving. He seems offended by any suggestion that the city schools might negotiate a lower cost for the land. Surely, he’s not suggesting that the county system engaged in some real hardball negotiating that resulted in a price of $84,000 an acre. It begs the question of why the other possible sites carried a price tag of $40,000 – $50,000 an acre.
And most amazingly of all, the county school board added 10 acres to its original site recommendation, and those acres sold for $20,000 an acre a year ago. It means that it’s a $640,000 windfall for its developer owners.
What was merely suspicions became worse when Shelby County Schools Board President David Pickler, presented with the possibility by the city board that it would reopen negotiations, discouraged the idea. As expected, he fell back on the county schools’ always reliable excuse that time is of the essence because the school is so badly needed.
It’s pretty hard to understand why county board members would have any objections to their city colleagues working to save some money. At $84,000 an acre, it is impossible for them to do any worse than county school officials. And anyway, there’s still details to be nailed down. A simple call to city government turned up the fact that the site doesn’t even have sewers, so that’s $84,000 an acres without sewer connections.
While there are questions about the price, how it was reached and who benefits from it, the more basic question is why, as a matter of policy, school sites are not simply taken by condemnation and the price set in court. As shown in other projects, this doesn’t slow down land assembly and it leaves the taxpayers footing the bill with the assurance that the price is fair and reasonable.
And yet, any suggestion of changing the way Shelby County Schools pick school sites are always met with hostility and argument from its Pickler. Hopefully, although the city school board has approved the site, it can bring some reason to the rest of the process and not allow the county school board to continue to stampede it into allowing business as usual.
Stay tuned: the county school system hasn’t given up on its plan to convert a grocery store owned by developer Kevin Hyneman into a school.