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County Commission plugs funding gap for Whitehaven Stem Center

Shelby County Commissioners Monday (Dec. 4) unanimously agreed to provide an additional $1.55 million to shore up a funding shortfall on the soon-to-be construction of the Whitehaven High School STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) Center.

While funding for that student-based project received a green light, a vote on a first reading for a proposed $1.1 million investment in a rugby program that benefits inner-city students will have to wait for a later meeting.

The money for the STEM project closes a funding shortfall that resulted after state regulators required a storm shelter to be installed at the cost-adjusted $9 million facility. 

“Either we can do that, or we can give the children in Whitehaven less than what was initially set out,” former Commissioner Eddie Jones told commissioners regarding the additional funding.

Jones, who now is the county Probate Court Clerk, said, “We had nothing to do with that. What the state required…the construction costs went up. That drove everything up. It could still happen, but we would have to do less for those students in that particular area.”

The vote to add the additional funding was 12-0. The project has been in the works since 2018.

The additional funding will bring Shelby County taxpayer’s total investment in the project to around $2.5 million. 

“I want to make sure everyone knows we have contributed to this project at a significant level. Due to various reasons, this is an additional request, on top of that,” said Commissioner Michael Whaley. 

While the general fund took an unexpected hit, most of the costs of the public-private partnership have been borne by donors. During the meeting it was announced that an additional $500,000 had been chipped in via philanthropy.

“For that individual, or group that’s going to contribute another half million dollars on top of the five million that was raised, bless them…,” said sponsor Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr.

Commissioners Erika Sugarmon and Britney Thornton cosponsored the resolution.

The money for the partnership will be administered by the local nonprofit SchoolSeed.

The center will be on the Whitehaven High School campus on Elvis Presley Boulevard south of Shelby Drive. Groundbreaking is scheduled for the coming spring. It is expected to be completed in 2025.

In addition to a STEMnasium, the facility will feature 12 classrooms for instructors to aid students in A.P. and dual enrollment classes in biology, chemistry, calculus, and college algebra. Computer science and coding classes also will be offered.

“This particular building should serve 5,800-6,000 children. It’s in our entire Whitehaven feeder pattern,” said Whitehaven Principal Dr. Vincent Hunter. 

“Not only will Whitehaven students have an opportunity to utilize the facilities, but our elementary schools in our neighborhood, as well as our middle school. That’s about nine elementary, middle, and high schools that will utilize the facilities.”

The vote on rugby funding stalled over a funding issue.

The $1.1 million investment would pay for a rugby field at the site of the old Vance Middle School campus at Vance Avenue and Orleans south of Downtown. Memphis Inner City Rugby has been operating there for years.

It follows a conditional agreement between Memphis Inner City Ruby and Commissioner Britney Thornton to include students from Hamilton High School in its program.

However, commission members rejected an administration request 12-1 (Thornton was the only “yes” vote) for a two-week delay to search for an additional $20,000 in ARPA funding to include more students.

“It’s really unfortunate the students of District 10 are not going to be factored in,” said Thornton. “I’m a little disheartened to see us provide access to some and not to all.”

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