When it gets cold outside, Felix Scott sometimes skips school because he knows there’s a chance heat won’t be working in some classrooms.
“I love this school,” Scott, an 11th-grader, said of Kingsbury High School in Memphis. But “most of the time I won’t come to school when it gets like this because it gets unbearable.”
This week, when temperatures in Memphis dipped to an unseasonably chilly 20 degrees, his first two classes had no heat. The problem was partially caused by a gas leak that led to an early dismissal Tuesday, but Scott said cold classrooms are common. Walking into a classroom with no heat, “I could feel this fresh coldness like a window had been opened.”
Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.
The 70-year-old building’s problems are not new or unique. Shelby County Schools officials reported spending nearly $70,000 on heating and air system repairs this year at Kingsbury High. Across the district, nearly half of the maintenance projects planned for this school year are replacing heating and air systems for $7.2 million. That’s a small slice of the $500 million in deferred maintenance the Memphis district faces across about 150 buildings.
“Heating issues, unfortunately, are widespread across our district,” said district spokeswoman Natalia Powers. “That’s actually the main reason why Superintendent Ray has been so up front and vocal about our Reimagining 901 effort because we have aging facilities.”
Reimagining 901 is the district’s effort to rework a $700 million plan left by the former superintendent to consolidate 28 aging buildings into 10 new ones. The thought of a large wave of school closures across the city was unsettling to many parents and community leaders, but district leaders at the time saw it as a way to get rid of large maintenance costs and improve academic performance.
Joris Ray, who took the helm in January and was named superintendent in April, wanted to reframe the plan. He and the school board have been holding community meetings across the city in recent weeks, gathering input on what people want to keep or change at their schools.
The resulting 7-to-10-year plan is expected early next year, in time for budget discussions, and it likely will borrow strategies from the original plan, such as consolidating three schools into a brand new building.
The district also convened an advisory committee of leaders from the school board, city planners, philanthropy, city and county government, and various neighborhoods to vet the plan before it goes to county commissioners for funding.
Earle Fisher, an activist and pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church recruited to the advisory committee, said even if two facilities are the same age, the district is likely to ignore a school in a low-income neighborhood, causing the building’s condition to worsen.
“Part of why people are so frustrated is the ways in which we formulize which buildings get attention,” he told district officials during the committee’s first meeting last week.
As the district tries to address its maintenance issues, it is suing the state for more money and calling on city government to reinstate annual funding to Memphis schools. Ray told student reporters for the Kingsbury High news site, the Flying Falcon, that President Trump’s tariffs on imports from China were the reason heating system repairs were delayed.
Scott, the Kingsbury High junior, said even after the gas leak was repaired Tuesday, some classrooms this week were still without heat.
“This time of year it seems like the quality of the building really starts to show how far down it’s gone, especially heat-wise because, well, there is none.”