Have All the Costs of Closing a School Been Considered?

School systems across the country are experiencing collateral damage from the recession and struggle to balance their budgets in the face of decreased local revenue, cuts to state funding and the disappearance of federal stimulus and jobs money. 

School district leaders describe their fiscal problems in crisis terms, and respond to immediate budget shortfalls by reducing operating costs, of which by far the largest proportion — up to 80 percent — is personnel. This means laying off teachers, eliminating central office jobs and seeking concessions from unions. And where such actions are insufficient to bridge budget gaps, instructional programs and student transportation are cut.

Increasingly, staff reductions are accompanied by school closures. Citing under-utilized classrooms, district officials argue that they can no longer afford to operate schools with excess capacity. A further justification is that a building has become obsolete and beyond economical repair or upgrading. Severely under-utilized schools are therefore consolidated, and closed facilities are either mothballed, leased to non-public education providers, adapted to non-instructional purposes, sold or demolished.

The current spate of closures raises a number of issues, most of which reflect uncertainties that complicate the task of district leadership who must decide if shuttering facilities is the right way to address a hopefully temporary budget challenge. These variables can be framed as questions:
  • Does the school system face a long-term fiscal imbalance? If so, how long and how severe?
  • Might current enrollment declines reverse? If so, when and by how much?
  • What criteria are used to establish that a building is obsolete and beyond repair or modernization? Note: Age alone is not sufficient.
  • What options are available in lieu of closing a school? Do they include cost savings through modernization, or potential revenue generation from the school?
  • Have all the economic costs and community impacts of closing a school been identified and formally evaluated by decision makers?
The full costs of closing schools are often underestimated, starting with a miscalculation of one-time expenditures for moving students, staff and supplies. These can entail modifications of existing schools to accommodate students and staff that have been displaced from elsewhere. Adding or enlarging science and computer labs, reconfiguring and restocking libraries, and renovating administration areas are typical required improvements. Health and safety codes might also be triggered, mandating additional washrooms, more parking or access improvements imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another potential financial cost is the loss of per-pupil funding if students opt out of public schools altogether. Eliminating neighborhood schools and/or leasing shuttered schools to non-public agencies are actions that, if not well thought out, may encourage students to exit the public school system, only exacerbating the fiscal problems in struggling districts.

In addition to direct economic costs of closing schools, there are numerous indirect costs affecting both education and the community. For instance, studies indicate that schools located outside a neighborhood reduce the extra-curricular activities of students, as well as the active involvement of parents. Enlarging class sizes, eliminating instructional programs, truncating full-day kindergarten and early childhood programs and providing fewer adult parenting classes are all examples of potential results of closed neighborhood schools that will likely have a negative impact on educational performance.

Schools are also key indicators of community vitality and sustainability. They influence where families choose to live, property values and tax revenues, and the pace and location of residential and commercial development. Neighborhood schools have multiple functions, not only providing facilities for teaching and learning, but offering resources to help meet social, recreational, health and personal needs of the community. This is especially true in small or rural locations where schools are among the few public facilities that can provide meeting space, serve as recreation centers and offer adult education.

Shuttering a school can therefore have widespread and lingering consequences in a neighborhood, often falling disproportionately on poorer communities. Neighborhoods without good schools don’t readily attract young families, and closing schools can decrease nearby property values. Communities already afflicted by lost jobs and homes will be shaken further by the closing of a neighborhood school, particularly if the decision-making process has been acrimonious. Fallout from strained community relations, such as eroded confidence in decision making or withdrawn support for municipal bond measures, can affect school boards for years.

Clearly, school district leaders considering closing a school must make difficult decisions. Uncertainties and ramifications far beyond the immediate budget issue make the task enormously difficult. All costs and indirect consequences are to be identified and carefully evaluated. A full range of feasible economies and cost-avoidance options must also be analyzed and ranked. And, the community needs to be engaged as essential stakeholders in the decision-making process. Closing a school may be the right decision, but it should always be a last resort. 

Michael Lytton, principal, Lytton Consulting, is a facilities planner with two decades experience in the public sector and an active member of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. Michael may be reached at [email protected].