Thursday, June 13, 2002

Math Problem

Memphis spends millions on high schools with few graduates.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 13, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Eight Memphis high schools graduated fewer than 100 students this year, but that hasn't stopped the school board from spending millions of dollars for new or extensively renovated buildings for them.

A report obtained by the Flyer shows that Manassas High School, slated for a $20 million overhaul, produced just 60 graduates. Carver High School, renovated for $12.3 million four years ago, had only 79 graduates. Booker T. Washington High School, renovated for $7.9 million, had 78 grads, while Mitchell High School, booked for a $13.8 million replacement school, had 72.

Enrollment has become so lopsided at the 28 Memphis public high schools that the two largest ones, Whitehaven and White Station, accounted for 15 percent (780 students) of the 5,157 graduates in the class of 2002. The eight smallest high schools -- Carver, Manassas, Mitchell, Oakhaven, Sheffield, Treadwell, Booker T. Washington, and Westside -- had only 599 graduates. Nearly half of the graduates in the class of 2002 came from the eight largest high schools.

The imbalance is a consequence of Memphis sprawling over 300 square miles, school-system policies that encourage choice and movement, a dropout rate that exceeds 35 percent at some schools, and a growing county school system. While several city high schools are shrinking, suburban and county schools are at capacity or overcrowded. Cordova High School, claimed by both systems, was over capacity four years after it opened. Recently annexed Countrywood needs three new schools with an estimated cost of $65 million. The oldest high school in the city, Central, is still one of the most popular and most successful, with 289 graduates this year, including 83 honors graduates.

Simply put, the money for capital spending is not following the students. All property-tax payers of Shelby County, whether or not they live in the city of Memphis, are paying the bill because of the school funding formula that allocates roughly $3 to Memphis schools for every $1 spent on county schools.

A task force has proposed funding changes, but so far, no one has zeroed in on the money spent on high schools relative to the number of students they serve and graduates they produce. Making the issue especially sensitive is the fact that the shrinking city high schools are almost all black, while the overcrowded suburban schools are mostly white.

The city schools administration hasn't closed a high school since Douglass in 1981, when Mayor Willie Herenton was superintendent and Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson was his assistant. Veteran school-system employees say there are still bitter feelings over Douglass and that it is virtually politically impossible to close a high school.

But is it smart to spend millions to renovate them or replace them with new buildings with empty classrooms and nearly as many staff members as graduates?

The city school administration and the elected school board disagree. Watson's staff did not recommend the $20 million Manassas renovation; the school board did. Board member Sara Lewis is a Manassas graduate, as is entertainer Isaac Hayes. The school is located north of downtown near an abandoned factory. It could get a boost in enrollment from the Uptown development next to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital but only if that project attracts hundreds of families with children in public schools.

That has not been the case at Carver High School, which is also located in a neighborhood that is losing population. The school board debated closing it when Gerry House was superintendent, but with plenty of money available for capital spending thanks to the funding formula linked to the growing county school system, it changed its mind. Not only did Carver stay open, it got a spiffy new building. In 2001, Carver had 108 graduates. This year, it had just 79.

In Countrywood, the city school board can bide its time as long as the county keeps responsibility for the schools there. The single-source funding plan would set boundaries for each system while lowering property taxes in the city and raising them in the county.

The issue is complicated, but it could be made clearer and more urgent by looking at how much is spent on schools that are hurting for customers and schools that attract them. The proof is in the pudding, which in this case is the graduates.


Number Of Graduates 2001/2002

Whitehaven: 369/400

White Station: 426/380

Ridgeway: 213/297

Fairley: 205/256

Wooddale: 335/207

Melrose: 143/201

South Side: 177/91

Sheffield: 124/79

Carver: 108/79

Mitchell: 58/72

Westside: 41/70

Treadwell: 77/63

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