Central High School Alumni Aim to Raise $3.5 million


Private financial contributions to public high schools usually take the form of $20, $100, or $1,000 checks to the booster club or PTA for athletic equipment, computers, or books for the library. But Central High School alumni are launching a $3.5 million fundraising campaign along the lines of what major colleges and universities do.

The campaign was announced Tuesday evening at the Midtown school by Dr. Tom Stern, a Central alumnus, cardiologist, and former member of the Memphis Board of Education. One more unusual note: Stern wants to raise the money in just three months. The crowd of about 25 people included board members Jeff Warren and Carl Johnson.

As one of the oldest public schools in Memphis, Central — once known as “The High School” — has thousands of well-to-do alumni. But the sizable goal and timetable for reaching it prompted Huey’s founder Thomas Boggs, Central Class of 1962, to ask whether donations could be made in the form of pledges over three years.

Stern said they could, but there is some urgency to the drive. Renovations at Central, parts of which were built in 1909, are overdue, and adjacent Crump Stadium is scheduled to be demolished this fall. The board of education and Memphis City Council have approved a $24 million package of improvements, but only about $21 million of funds are available. Delays will escalate the costs even more.

City Councilman Tom Marshall, an architect whose firm is working for the school board as overseer of new building projects, presented three plans in three price ranges. The major differences involve seating and lighting at the football field, which will remain in place after the old concrete stadium is demolished. The most expensive option would include lighting and 4,000 seats, concession stands, a storage building, and an eight-lane 400-meter track. The brick entryway and wrought-iron gates of the stadium would remain part of the new sports complex.

All three plans include a new classroom addition in space currently used for parking, new air conditioning, and extensive painting and replacement of doors, windows, and lockers. Donations are being sought for science labs, retractable bleachers, dressing rooms, the track, and concession stands.

A brochure being sent to prospective donors says contributions will be tax deductible because they are being handled through the nonprofit Jewish Foundation of Memphis. Naming rights will be awarded for large donations. And Stern said an anonymous donor has already pledged $500,000 as a challenge grant.

Shelby County Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel asked why Central did not ask the city and county for the money for the total cost of the project. Marshall said that is still an option but private donations could expedite the work and avoid cost-cutting measures in the design.

Stern said the football field and track will be used by other schools such as Northside, Southside, and Hamilton, and alumni of those schools will also be asked to donate funds.

Central is the second Memphis high school whose alumni have launched a major funding drive. Last year East High School alumnus Charles McVean announced the formation of a foundation that would raise $3 million for the school. But after spending about $200,000 on building improvements and tutoring, McVean said this year he was going to delay asking others for contributions until the school and the foundation could better define how the money would be spent.

Central and East were considered two of the best schools in Memphis prior to school desegregation and white flight. Central has maintained its academic reputation and standing as an optional school. It has about 1,200 students in grades 10-12 and will add ninth-graders when the new buildings are finished in 2007.

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