Nobody's There

At the recent 2008 National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA) Show in Baltimore, I attended a presentation by Deborah P. Moore, Executive Editor/Publisher of School Planning and Management magazine entitled, “Trends in Education and Design.” Included in her presentation were current and projected enrollment trends in both the K-12 and higher education sectors which bear repeating.

During the past decade, school districts throughout the nation have experienced enrollment increases. These increases have created a demand for new and renovated educational facilities to accommodate these increases and new programs. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, a total of 55.9 million students were attending public elementary and secondary schools in 2006, while another 6.8 million students attended private schools. These enrollments represent a 14 percent increase from 1992. During the last decade, over $211B in new construction, additions, and retrofits were completed to accommodate these enrollments – an average of $19.3B a year.

Nationally, total K-12 enrollments are projected to increase through 2017, with public school enrollments increasing an additional 10 percent and private schools an additional five percent. Most of the increases will occur in the south and west, with 37 states and the District of Columbia anticipating growth. Significant increases over 20 percent are projected in eight states, with Arizona and Nevada projected to increase over 40 percent. Overall enrollments will increase 19 percent in the south, 15 percent in the west, and less than one percent in the Midwest.

Enrollments in the northeast, in contrast to these trends, will decrease between now and 2017 by three percent. Decreases will occur in 13 states, with Louisiana, Vermont, and Rhode Island projected to experience enrollment declines greater than 10 percent. Urban districts in the Midwest and northeast, which have been experiencing declining enrollments in the past few years, will continue to decrease throughout this projection period.

Areas experiencing declining enrollments are presented with both opportunities and challenges. Declining enrollments permit districts to implement desired program changes that were formerly not possible. Two examples that a number of school districts experiencing declining enrollments have implemented include expanding half-day kindergarten to all-day, or creating new four-year-old kindergarten opportunities. Conversely, districts are faced with making the most efficient use of their space as fewer students mean higher costs to operate a particular school facility. More often than not, this leads to closing that particular school — one of the most difficult and emotionally charged experiences for both district personnel and school communities.
Closing a school is not a single process; it is several, including:
  1. the decision to close,
  2. the closing of the building, and
  3. the disposition of the building.

Each is different and requires time and appropriate input. As such, districts should avoid trying to do them simultaneously in order to ensure the greatest opportunity for each to be successful. Because this decision is so emotionally charged, separating each process will also minimize the emotional impact on each.

Ideally, a decision to close a school should be made as early as possible, but no later than December. There are several reasons.
  • It will permit parents and students to have as much time as possible to choose a new school or get a new assignment if there is a defined student assignment process.
  • It will provide adequate time for planning and executing the actual closing. Closing a school requires as much time for planning as opening a new school. Some districts, such as the Milwaukee Public Schools, have developed a protocol for closing that details the task, responsible party, and completion date. In Milwaukee’s case, this protocol has over 75 separate tasks that must be completed before the end of the school year.
  • It will permit the financial impacts to be included in the annual budget cycle. There will be both costs and savings that need to be identified and included.

Closing a building does not mean that it no longer needs to be maintained. Because the disposition of the building is a separate process, there may not be a decision made as to its disposition by the end of the school year. That decision may include use for another educational purpose, retention and leasing to another party, or “mothballing” the property for future use or sale. If it is to be reused for another educational purpose, then decisions will be part of that planning process that may require the facility be ready for either the coming school year or the one immediately following. Regardless, the building will need to be maintained as if it was open. In the other scenarios, the building must be maintained to permit future use at a reasonable cost.

At the end of the school year, the building should be secured. Close and lock all windows and pull all drapes and shades. If the building does not have an alarm system, installing one is the best investment you can make. This will deter break-ins, damage to the building, and provide the district with immediate notification of problems. Other tasks include cleaning and disinfecting all toilets and locker rooms; sweeping all rooms and disposing of garbage; shutting down fans and motors; unplugging all clocks, refrigerators, and freezers; shutting down boilers; and shutting down the fire alarm system. If furniture and equipment is to remain, make sure it is stored in a secure area, such as a gymnasium.

Once the building is secured, it must be monitored. The building should be checked daily to ensure the proper temperature (50 degrees) is being maintained; any water leaks are found and corrected; graffiti is identified and removed within 24 hours; broken windows are repaired; and the grounds be kept free of trash. Regular schedules for grass cutting and snow removal need to be established and included in the checklist of daily tasks. It is important that the building continues to be maintained to the same standards as all other district buildings.

Daily monitoring and maintenance activities have a number of advantages, including the following.
  • They enable the building to be reopened or reused without large expenditure of funds.
  • They prevent the building from becoming an “eyesore,” and impacting the surrounding neighborhood negatively — both from a crime and property value basis.
  • They show the community that the district is a good steward of its physical and financial resources by not permitting a multi-million dollar building to deteriorate.

Because enrollments are cyclical, most districts will experience declining enrollments at some time and the prospect of having to close one or more school buildings. As difficult as this experience is, it is even more difficult to try to get voters to approve new capital funds in the future when enrollments increase to build a new school because the existing facilities were allowed to deteriorate and become unusable. It is therefore important to make sure that any facilities that are closed be maintained for future use — a small cost now to save large costs in the future.

Edward M. McMilin is the president of E. McMilin Planning Services LLC. He is the former facilities planner for the Milwaukee Public Schools where he served for 32 years.