Closing Schools

Obviously, when a new school is opened, replacing an existing one, the existing school will be closed. Closing the old building makes sense (though there still may be a legitimate question about what to do with it).

In an Illinois district, when friable asbestos was found in an elementary school, the decision was made to close the asbestos-laden school and disperse its children to other schools that had space. (Even then, a decision had to be made whether to bus children from that area or to reassign all the children in what was essentially a small district. The decision was to bus all of the district’s students and create centers for K-1, 2-3 and 4-5 in three school buildings.)

Pressure has been building in many parts of the nation to close and merge neighboring small districts, creating larger, more economic units. The basic idea is to eliminate costs (do we really need two superintendents?), but more often, the question revolves around the possibility of closing school buildings and gathering all students into a single structure, thus savings costs of heating, cleaning, maintenance and more. 

That was, and is, a real question facing Terrance Dougherty, superintendent in Hancock, N.Y. Hancock has just 375 students in grades K-12 in two school buildings. A neighboring district, 12 miles away, educates 550 students, also in grades K-12. Many analysts feel that New York State is pressuring for merger of small districts, and Hancock is an obvious target.

While money might well be saved if Hancock gave up its independence and sent its children to the larger neighboring school, there are other issues that need to be considered. Hancock is a small district, but it covers a large area with bus routes sometimes taking an hour to complete. Closing the school would force many Hancock children onto 90-minute bus rides twice a day. Busing costs might not be greatly increased, but children would pay a price in terms of education, sleep deprivation, loss of recreational time and even, possibly, safety.

As important, the closing in Hancock would essentially shutter the center of the Hancock community. Experience has shown the devastating effect a school closing can have on an entire community and its commercial center. Specifically, in Hancock, the district serves as the social, economic and cultural hub of the community. Thus, it is the largest employer in town, and often times, is the sole reason why community residents travel into the village. Predictably, closing the school facilities will reduce the volume of potential “customer” traffic frequenting community shops and businesses.

Faced with state pressure, Dougherty is diligently working with school district representatives, citizens and stakeholders of both communities in an attempt to discuss alternatives to closing the school. Already, the two districts are sharing athletic teams and have begun exploring the merger of several administrative functions, including business and maintenance, along with instructional leadership. They are also exploring ways, through technology, to merge their course offerings, enlarge class sizes and bring to both communities educational resources from colleges and others through distance learning.

In this way, all schools remain open and viable, bus routes are kept reasonable and both communities retain “their” school. Educational and community values are saved while costs are reduced through cooperation. The two districts still face the possibility of state-forced merger, but their cooperative program should ensure the continued operation of all buildings and, therefore, continued viability of the two town centers. 

In this case, keeping a school open may save far more than closing it ever could.

A MUCH Bigger Problem
While small districts everywhere face pressures to merge and close schools, some of our nation’s largest school districts are closing schools for a much different reason. They have, and are maintaining, schools that are empty or virtually empty because the number of children in the district, or the area the school covers, has declined. There is certainly logic to closing a school that is empty, but these large districts still faced the same questions being considered in Hancock — would shuttering a school really save any significant money? What should be done with the closed building? How would the education of children be effected? What would be the impact on the community if it lost its school?

The Philadelphia School District was faced with 70,000 empty seats, one third of its capacity. A combination of absolute population decline, deteriorating facilities that would cost too much to repair, poor academic results and the growth of publicly funded but privately controlled charter schools had caused the problem. Budget problems were the immediate catalyst for finding a solution.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based think tank, stepped in as something of a “friend of the court” to examine how six other large-city school districts (Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.) had handled similar problems and to see if lessons from their experience could be useful to Philadelphia. (“Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts” is available from The Pew Charitable Trusts.) Few districts can relate directly to these huge school systems, but the study’s findings can provide valuable information and insight for a district of any size.

Will closing a school save any significant money? The evidence is that closing a school saves little money in context of most school district budgets. Real savings occur only if staff is slashed, but normally teachers and most administrators follow the students to other buildings. Many districts facing a budget crunch did cut staff, but that was incidental to the closing of a school.

One hope was that money could be saved by selling or leasing the buildings, but that has proved difficult.  Run-down buildings in deteriorating neighborhoods, especially ones that have just lost their anchor (a school), are not easily sold.  

What should be done with closed buildings? Last summer, these six large urban districts had a total of 200 empty buildings. With so many buildings standing empty and unused, vandalism and illicit activities were bound to occur, casting a pall on the surrounding communities. If a school building is closed, something needs to be done. It does not take 200 closed buildings to bring blight to a neighborhood. 
Although not a part of the Pew study, small city districts, in particular, may want to take a look at the result of school sales 40 years ago, when school population was declining (after the Post-War Baby Boom) and buildings were standing empty.

In two situations in which I was involved (Smithtown and Albany, N.Y.), schools had been sold when population was declining, but in both districts, over time, student population trends reversed. My firm was brought in when schools were crowded and new facilities were needed. The problem was that there were no viable places to build needed new schools. The best locations, with significant land, had been sold off and were occupied. The cost of reclaiming the sold-off properties was prohibitive. 

With hindsight, the districts would have been better served had they held onto their buildings. They could have been kept open but smaller, possibly by renting some available space to compatible users, or closed and leased for short terms with the expectation that they would be reclaimed when empty-nest neighborhoods filled up again. Or, to prevent deterioration and vandalism, it might have been better to tear them down and create school-owned open space that could later be reclaimed.

How would the education of children be effected? One hope in those six urban districts was that the closing of underutilized buildings and the movement of the children to better facilities would result in improved education or, at least, improved test scores. The Pew study found that the long-term effect of school closings on student performance “appears to be minimal. While there is limited research on the subject, academic studies suggest that student achievement often falls during the final months of a closing school’s existence. But such damage generally turns out to be short-lived.” And some students, the report notes, “end up going to higher performing schools and doing better there.”

What would be the impact on the community if it lost its school? This, of course, is a key question whether it is asked in Hancock, N.Y., or Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. Communities relate to their schools, even if those schools are not as good as they ought to be. Closing a school often means closing a neighborhood or, in the case of very small districts, closing an entire town.

The political fallout from closing schools often is significant. As the Pew Report points out, in Washington, D.C., it was a significant factor in the defeat of a mayor and the deposing of the school’s superintendent. Even in the most favorable and obvious situations, closing a school can be a political disaster with career implications for those involved.

How does one accomplish a school closing without significant fallout? The Pew Report identifies several approaches that have worked, “better than others in generating public acceptance, though not necessarily enthusiasm.” They include:
  • trying to convince the neighborhood as early as possible that downsizing is needed; 
hiring outside experts, who are perceived as fair and disinterested, to guide the process;
  • establishing clear and quantifiable criteria for choosing buildings to close, including physical condition, percentage of seats occupied and academic achievement;
  • showing willingness to make adjustments, but not wholesale changes, to the plan; and
  • making a single vote on closing schools if more than one is involved, rather than voting on each separately.
All of that is good and sensible and certainly the best way to go if you must close a school, but whatever you do, closing a school is going to be a painful experience for a community, for a district and for those who are involved. And, it appears, if the reason is to save money or to improve educational outcomes, you may be on the wrong track. 

Paul Abramson
is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 “Planner of the Year.” He can be reached at [email protected].