Thursday, March 12, 2009

City Schools: County's Second-Class Citizen

Old myths just won’t die.

There’s the one that says that suburban sprawl is growth.

The one that says that the state ADA (Average Daily Attendance) results in windfalls to Memphis City Schools.

That the smaller towns have more efficient governments than Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

Or that annexation is the wisest strategy for Memphis, and that the county wheel tax was only supposed to be for one year.

Finally, there’s the persistent idea that surfaced again this week that Shelby County Schools builds superior schools, especially when compared to Memphis City Schools.

Student Warehouses

“I have a real problem swallowing that we’re spending so much more there,” said Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who seems to more accurately swallow hard anytime city schools ask for anything. Specifically, he was comparing the $151.80 per square foot price of the city’s Douglas High School and the $136.10 per square foot price of the county’s new Southwind High School.

If cost was the overriding factor, we’d agree with him. But judging the value of schools is about more than price, and thankfully, unlike the Shelby County Schools, Memphis City Schools actually builds schools that act as hubs for community, that have a sense of place, that have a sense of arrival and that have public art.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools builds warehouses for students like Southwind High School – the wrong-sized school at the wrong place for the wrong reason – that has all the charm of a prison (see photo).

As Memphis City Schools Commissioner Betty Mallott accurately pointed out, city schools are often located in urban settings where land assembly can be tricky and because they are in neighborhoods, they have the responsibility to be forces for community pride and spirit. In addition, the city district thankfully pays the living wage and benefits package.

At Their Expense

Commissioners say they are concerned about getting school costs under control. Unfortunately, these always seem to come at the expense of Memphis City Schools. As for us, we’d like to know how much of the $480 million in facility renovations and construction needed by Memphis City Schools and documented five years ago remain to be addressed.

These kinds of repetitive conversations over the past 30 years have largely been “tail wagging the dog” attitudes of Shelby County Government, which has the tendency to think that any request for Memphis City Schools is worthy, less well-thought-out and less important.

It’s been evident time and time again over the years whenever the county schools district came in for money for a new school. There was always immediate loud gnashing of teeth and cries of outrage that the ADA law required that every time $1 is given to the county district, about $3 has to be given to the city district.

Listening to it, you would have thought that Memphis City Schools’ classrooms were lavishly decorated, there were computers for every pupil and that the surroundings were gold-plated. Of course, the truth was far different. On one occasion as county government moaned about having to send Memphis City Schools money just because Shelby County Schools needed new schools, one television station was reporting how ceilings in some schools were falling in, paint was chipping and teaching conditions were abysmal.

More Of The Same

But such are the racial undertow that has always characterized school issues in county government. Even after Memphis City Schools had meticulously inventoried about half a billion dollars in needed improvements, it was the county district’s requests for funding that prompted action – and money.

We think that the problems with construction of Manassas and Douglas High Schools aren’t related to square foot costs. More to the point, both schools were built twice as large as needed, and as a result, they will on their best days be operating at 50% capacity. Unfortunately, good old-fashioned politics resulted in the schools being built as tributes to a city council member and to a former school administration, and so it never received the serious planning evaluation that it was needed.

Meanwhile, the poster child for the county district's style of management is the Southwind High School, the hulking warehouse for 2,000 students - predominately African-American and many of them moved out of Germantown schools – that has all the charm of a new state prison.

The $36 million bunker is built on land for which Shelby County Schools paid significantly too much (about 50 percent more than comparable land in the same general area), it's built at the wrong location, and it's the wrong size and it was the wrong price.

Here's the thing about the new county schools. They are the educational equivalent of big box retail, and like the big boxes themselves, these schools have done nothing so much as feed sprawl and fuel our car-dependent society. For 30 years, Shelby County Schools has regularly built schools far from the center of communities, fueling sprawl, traffic and pollution. (Considering that most of them were selected by developers who were enriched by their projects near the schools, we guess this shouldn’t be surprising.)

Fuel For Sprawl

And while Shelby County Government seemed willing to move heaven and earth to pay for these mega-schools, it was content to let urban schools deteriorate into places unfit for their use as centers of learning.

Nationally, between 1995 and 2004, about $253 billion was spent on public school construction and renovation, but the bulk of the funding went for new schools. And make no mistake about it, were it not for the much-maligned ADA (Average Daily Attendance) requirements of state law, that would surely have been the case here. Some public officials regularly wring their hands about the growing county debt, but left unsaid is the fact that the needs of city schools were every bit as important and critical as new county schools.

The director of town planning for the New Urbanist architecture firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. could have been talking about Shelby County when he said: "Most school systems are building in new growth areas. They're remote and overcrowded, and kids can't walk to them. The mentality is about quantity versus quality."

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