It’s difficult to ignore the charms of an old school: Creaky hardwood floors, solid brick walls, ornate artwork, large windows and the memories of generations of kids learning their first math or reading lesson. As the state of Ohio funnels millions of dollars into school facilities, districts throughout the state are faced with difficult questions about what to do with these buildings.

This scene is being replayed in both large and small districts around Ohio. The Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) evaluates a district’s stock of buildings and determines it would be cheaper to abandon old buildings and build new facilities. That leaves district leaders with two problems — potential public outcry to keep architecturally significant buildings and unused facilities in cases where a building must be abandoned.

Consider These Examples

In Cincinnati, the district’s $996-million master plan had to take into account 34 schools that are either listed or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Cincinnati Public School leaders would also have to respond to a very active preservation association. During the early 1900s, the city school board began raising money to embellish buildings with art and significant architecture. Some examples include glazed terra cotta façades, tile fountains and statues. A local photographer even produced a coffee-table book featuring the timeless beauty of the city’s schools.

In Akron, the OSFC originally determined 42 of the district’s 58 school buildings should be demolished under a two-thirds rule that recommends new construction if renovation costs exceed 66 percent of the cost of a new building. The district later appealed the ruling and will only replace 36 buildings.

In Canal Winchester, the district’s oldest building has new life this fall, housing classrooms for seventh and eighth graders.

In Piqua, the district’s high school was repurposed for board offices. After determining it would be more cost effective to relocate those offices into smaller space, the district had to find a developer for the old building.

Last fall, I was part of a panel discussion at a school administrators’ conference in Ohio. What follows are some of the highlights of our presentation.

In With the Old

If the brick walls of the Canal Winchester Middle School could talk, they’d have 140 years worth of stories — lessons scrawled on blackboards, secrets whispered between sixth graders, community fairs and school plays. The structure holds memories for Canal Winchester residents, and the district knew it would have to stay in any building renovation program.

“It’s a very pretty, historical building located in the center part of town. People who have lived in Canal Winchester their whole life have gone to school there. People take a lot of pride in saying ‘my class was upstairs on the second floor,’” says Superintendent Susan Lang Bochnovich.“I think the building celebrates the old merging with the new, so we want to keep it in the school district.”

The costs of the renovation had to be covered by the district, since the school didn’t fit within OSFC’s two-thirds rule. The building will house seventh and eighth graders and will be dedicated in the fall of 2002.

What Canal Winchester did with its middle school makes Royce Yeater, AIA, Midwest director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, extremely happy. He has made hundreds of presentations to community groups and districts as a school planner and preservation advocate.

Yeater and his group are particularly concerned with the trend to abandon old buildings — which often make up the core of city neighborhoods — in order to build what he calls“sprawl schools” outside of town on farmland.

“Districts should carefully consider the historic and neighborhood benefit of refurbishing an old building,” Yeater says. Buildings should be surveyed for their historic merit and role as the center of the community. These surveys should be conducted in conjunction with a local or state preservation organization.

“Communicate with preservation advocates the same way you would other stakeholders to achieve a consensus on a districtwide strategy,” Yeater says.

The Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) used this approach to keep some of its architecturally significant buildings. Initially, only 16 of the district’s 82 schools would have been remodeled under OSFC’s two-thirds rule.

“With the community’s input, we found everybody wanted to keep the buildings,” says Michael Burson, director of facilities. “We are renovating 31 buildings, so we were pretty successful in winning those arguments with the state.” The district found that buildings completed in the first half of the century are better candidates for preservation than buildings finished in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Building condition isn’t the only factor in determining whether to keep a school open. Districts must examine population projections to identify schools that may need to be closed due to dwindling enrollment.

Old Becomes New

Old school buildings often make attractive locations for other development. Solid masonry, large windows, high ceilings and possible tax credits make them enticing to developers. In Cincinnati, old public school buildings have been converted to office space, loft apartments, even a TV station. As the district implements its master plan, it will have to attract new developers to repurpose vacated buildings.

“The beauty of our plan is that we’re going to have a lot of time in most cases to come up with creative reuses for those buildings,” Burson says. “There are a lot of success stories in Cincinnati already.”

CPS will employ real estate consultants to assist the district in marketing the buildings to developers, Burson adds.

Arn Bortz is a Cincinnati-area developer who is known for revitalizing old buildings. He hasn't developed a school building, but he understands what it takes to take an old building and give it new life with a different purpose. Just one look at his office, a huge red brick building that used to house a monastery, provides an example. He says repurposing an old school starts with location. “You can get a gorgeous school building in the middle of what’s perceived to be a dangerous, unattractive neighborhood, and you won’t be able to attract tenants to that building because of the surroundings,” Bortz says.

The classic architecture and size of old schools, along with potential tax credits, make them particularly attractive as residential apartments.

“There’s curb appeal; they look cool,” Bortz says. “When you get inside, the size of a classroom is roughly the size of a large one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment. You also have high ceilings, large windows and surface parking, which are plusses.” However, those large windows aren’t always energy efficient, and developers need to rebuild the windows rather than replace them in order to get historic tax credits for the project.

“There are rules to get those tax credits,” Bortz says. “Some of those rules have to do with how you clean the brick, repair mortar joints and how you deal with significant architectural elements like main entryways. That’s the price you pay to earn the credit.”

At the same time, developers can’t shoulder high operating costs for a facility. “You have high-volume spaces, which consume a lot of energy, and inefficient windows, and that can result in a project where the operating expenses blow you out of the water,”

Bortz says. “And, that’s tough to determine up front.”

Asbestos and lead paint removal along with ADA compliance are additional considerations for developers as they repurpose old schools. “You have to add a premium for the privilege of working with these older buildings.”

As districts prepare to close a building, they should begin to cultivate relationships with community organizations and realtors who may be able to spread the word to potential developers who could be interested in the property. “They can try to be matchmaker between the district and a developer,” Bortz says.

But school leaders must have realistic expectations about a building’s value to a developer who must essentially start from scratch, Bortz adds.

This process is how Piqua found someone to redevelop its old high school building. The district was using the building for its offices until it found a more cost-effective location. Superintendent Jerry Clark didn’t want the building to remain abandoned and become a public relations problem for the district.

“It sits in a heavily-populated residential area,” Clark says. “We didn’t want the stigma of having an abandoned building in town.”

The city’s chamber of commerce helped find a developer who takes older buildings and converts them to residential retirement communities.

“A lot of what we had was luck,” Clark says. “I think what made some difference was we did a lot of networking prior to putting the building on the market.” So, the district was able to sell the building and save the $150,000 it would cost to tear it down.

Old School Resources

It’s clear that old schools stir up memories and passion. School districts considering what to do with old buildings should first turn to the communities and neighborhoods around the facility. Community councils, businesses and organizations should be included for they can help guide the process. Other resources include The National Trust for Historic Preservation, on the Web at , DesignShare (an online educational facility library) at , The Ohio School Facilities Commission at and Steed Hammond Paul at .