Broke and Building 

Last week, about 200 people gathered in North Memphis to witness an endangered species in those parts -- a groundbreaking. The Memphis City Schools officially began construction on the new Manassas High School in a mushy field decorated with blue and gold balloons.

Manassas alumni, some of the most devoted in the city, came out in throngs, many wearing the school's colors.

"How many went to Manassas?" Rusty Taylor, of architects Evans Taylor Foster Childress, asked the crowd. A roar went up, along with many hands. "Anybody brave enough to hold up their hand if they didn't go to Manassas?"

The new school will be 149,000 square feet, big enough to handle 800 students. The design includes a courtyard in the center of the building and an auditorium.

"This will be a state-of-the-art facility," said Taylor. "We have pictures of the historical buildings. We tried to pull some of the elements from the old school and incorporate them into the design."

Or, as Superintendent Carol Johnson said, "We're bringing the old with the new, so it won't feel like a brand-new building. It will feel like coming home."

If so, it's a homecoming many years in the making. Manassas alumni had to fight and fight hard for the project, coming en masse to MCS board meetings to speak about deteriorating conditions at the school. But not everybody thought the project had merit.

According to figures from the state, Manassas High School had a student body of 358 students in 2004, the fewest of any MCS high school and about a third of the old building's capacity.

Compared to 1,200 students at East, 1,640 at Whitehaven, or 2,112 at White Station, it's hard to justify an $18 million building project for 358 students. That's about $50,000 per student in building costs alone.

But Manassas has a storied history. Founded in 1900, it became the first accredited four-year high school in the city for African Americans. Its alumni include Isaac Hayes, council member Barbara Swearengen Holt, and city school board member Sara Lewis. This influential pedigree helped it get new life.

But if building one school was controversial three years ago, building anything is now controversial. In November, faced with mounting debt and continual budget shortfalls, the City Council put a hold on its capital spending. The question the city faced is much the same as the one faced by MCS: Do we need new buildings?

The current fiscal year budget for the city included $240 million in capital improvements. Now, the administration has selected a capital committee to review the procedures surrounding project selection. They are also looking at capital spending in 12 peer cities. The committee is expected to have a recommendation for the council January 17th.

At a recent council meeting, chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb said the city is trying to better coordinate projects.

"We have all these quasi-governmental agencies: MATA, MCS, MLGW. We need to make sure they're all aligned. Instead of doing capital projects in a vacuum, we are going to do joint planning like we ought to do," said Lipscomb. "I think everyone agrees on the concept of joint planning. It's just ... how do we do that?"

Well, hallelujah. Planning on capital projects? I almost can't believe my ears. Is this the same city that envisioned the Madison Avenue trolley line?

Lipscomb went even further and mentioned the long-term effects of capital spending on other parts of the budget. "If we open up a police precinct, it's going to affect operations, too. We want to make sure things are in sync," he said.

Realistically, the city can't stop building new, or renovating old, facilities. Needs change; buildings deteriorate. The unfortunate part is that there doesn't seem to be any sticker shock. I once heard a city staff member talk about writing a $14 million debt service check at the beginning of each month. When questioned, she said something to the effect of "the city will always have debt." There didn't seem to be any question in her mind about whether we needed to rein in that debt.

"It's not like in the business community where you can say it's going to have these returns," Lipscomb said. "Sometimes, it's just intangible."

Any maybe that's part of the problem. Capital projects are essentially city investments -- whether in safety or community -- and should be chosen just as carefully.

Though he was once a Booker T. Washington Warrior, Lipscomb was at Manassas' groundbreaking in his role as executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority. He talked about overall plans for the surrounding neighborhood, including new housing such as that in Uptown and a new police precinct.

"What we want to do is rebuild the community, not just the school. The school is the anchor," said Lipscomb.

If you build it, will they come? I don't know. Hopefully, MCS is paving the way for the future, not just throwing away money on the past.

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