Construction has begun on the Southeast Shelby County High School, and already, Shelby County Schools is showing as much sensitivity to the environment as it does to people trying to speak at its meetings.

Most of the site has been clear cut so thoroughly it would be the envy of the suburban developers whose interests are so well-served by the district.

Gone are hundreds and hundreds of trees that had grown for decades on the location at the northwestern corner of Hacks Cross Road and Shelby Drive. It’s a poetic start for a school that’s a testament to poor educational decision-making. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the high school is at the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, it’s the wrong price and it’s built for the wrong reasons.

Student Drivers

It’s hard to imagine a worse location for a school. This morning at 8 o’clock, the intersection was clogged with motorists blowing their horns and rushing through yellow lights (and an occasional red one). It portends well for the day when hundreds of car-driving high school students are added to the mix.

As Sheriff Mark Luttrell’s office points out in its monthly report about intersections with the most traffic accidents, the intersection already is regularly one of the worst three accident locations outside Memphis. Look for it to get lots worse.

Then, there’s the question of why Shelby County Schools needs a site 50 percent larger than the national average for high school sites (and that’s if it includes a football stadium). Here, Memphis City Schools normally needs 25 acres for a high school and increases the footprint to 40 acres if it’s to add a stadium that serves several schools.

A Premium Price

And yet, Shelby County Schools bought about 62 acres for the new high school at a price that was somewhere between 60 – 100 percent more expensive than the alternate site nearby. Interestingly, 10 acres that the county schools added to the site had sold for one-quarter of what the district paid only about a year earlier.

Over the past 15 years, the county district has repeatedly allowed developers to pick its school sites and in the process, the pockets of county taxpayers. County school location decisions have literally produced millions of dollars in profits for politically connected developers while fueling sprawl that our grandchildren, and possibly our great-grandchildren, will pay for.

Add to that the county district’s tendency to warehouse students in a 2,000-student school and its thin overcrowding arguments to justify the new high school, and it’s hard to point to a decision that is as poor as this one.

It Blinked

Unfortunately, Memphis City Schools – which will eventually assume management from its county counterpart – had the opportunity to force a wiser decision, but it blinked, allowing the county to win its argument for the site in spite of deep reservations by the city district’s staff and board and in the face of strong indications that the new school is motivated by an ugly side of racial politics in Shelby County. The school staff and board felt compelled to respond to a need to move African-American kids out of the city limits of Germantown because of local objections to the racial makeup at Germantown High School in particular.

The county system’s plaintiff pleas about overcrowding, delivered with a regularity that conjures up images of the boy who cried wolf, is producing more skepticism these days because of suspicions about how the Shelby County Schools calculates capacities for its schools. But the damage has been done.

With the new high school, the capacity of Germantown High School will drop below 50 percent, but it will indeed be much whiter in its student population. It will be 2012 before the growth in enrollment in Southeast Shelby County can justify a 1,200-student high school, much less the 2,000-student one being built by Shelby County Schools.

Apples And Oranges

In the end, it’s possible for any school district – including Memphis City Schools – to paint a picture of overcrowded schools. All it needs to do is to adjust how it calculates its classroom capacities. For example, to produce overcrowded schools, Shelby County Schools can calculate capacities at 15.5 students for each elementary school classroom, 18 students for each middle school classroom, and 20 students for each high school classroom.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools calculates capacities at 20 students per elementary classroom; 24 students per middle school classroom; and 28 students per high school classroom. In other words, by adjusting the classroom capacity, a school district can seemingly present powerful albeit manufactured evidence about overcrowding to county elected officials whose votes are needed to fund new schools.

In fact, Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson could adopt the county method for determining capacities, and she could argue that no city school should be closed in her Five-Year Facilities Master Plan, which to the contrary, recommends the closing of several city schools. It would be the politically expedient thing to do, but fortunately for taxpayers, she’s been willing to take a cold, hard look at the need for every city school.

Back To Basics

At this point, we have more confidence in Dr. Johnson’s philosophy for building schools, and it seems logical that Memphis City Schools should be in charge of building the new school in the first place since Shelby County Schools is to only be a short-term tenant. The city district has an Economy of Scale model for schools that discourages the placement of these mammoth buildings in areas where students have little or no connection to the neioghborhood.

And yet, even if Dr. Johnson hadn’t applied that model, taxpayers would have at least saved about $2 million that was spent to buy acreage that really isn’t needed in the first place.