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Innovative Uses Found for Surplus Schools

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An estimated 7,000 of the nation's 86,000 public schools have been closed because of declining enrollment, according to Ellen Bussard of the Educational Facilities Laboratories (efl) in New York.

But school districts and local governments around the country are already responding in innovative ways to the challenge of shrinking enrollments. For example:

In Prince George's County, Md., an elementary-school building that had been vacant for two years was sold to private developers and converted into an office complex.

In Gloucester, Mass., a grammar school built at the turn of the century was transformed into subsidized housing for people over 55.

A food program for senior citizens operates in an underused school in Seattle.

Such new uses are not brought about easily, however, according to experts on the subject. And two new reports on school closings and declining enrollment warn about the need for careful planning and community involvement in decisions to close and reuse schools.

Public-school enrollment has dropped from 46.1 million in 1972 to approximately 40.1 million this year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

But the new reports indicate that, all too often, the response by school board members and administrators to the demographic changes has been ill-conceived.

One of the reports, by the American Association of School Administrators (aasa), says that "administrators have learned that disposal of a surplus school building is something that cannot be done quickly."

'Precious Resource'

But, the report continues, "the 10-year record of reuse of vacant schools, as it appears in 1981, is one of haste to relieve the school board of responsibility for surplus schools. Hindsight now shows that some school administrators did not appreciate the precious resource that lies even in a vacant school."

The aasa study points to a few major op6tions for using surplus space or vacant buildings, including: conversion for other school district needs, leasing empty classrooms, and using surplus space for new community purposes such as recreation or day-care.

The aasa report also advises: "Be slow and deliberate in selling or razing school buildings. Give first consideration to leasing." It suggests that a possible upswing in student enrollment by the end of the decade might require keeping now-vacant schools under school-board control.

Careful and Open Planning

In addition, a handbook jointly published this month by efl, the Manhattan-based research group, and the National Committee for Citizens in Education (ncce) points out that vacant school facilities can be a new resource that benefits the entire community--and even increases neighborhood stability. The report urges careful and open planning as a way to avoid divisiveness in school districts over school closings.

A third report, issued by the General Accounting Office (gao) in January, also underscores the value of surplus schools. It recommends that federal agencies consider using those schools before spending money on new facilities, but a gao spokesman says that the recommendations have not yet been adopted.

While seeing vacant schools as a potential resource, the new reports and experts on the subject challenge the claim that enrollment losses saves money for school districts.

The aasa report states: "The experiences of hundreds of school districts demonstrate that despite fewer students, they need as much and usually more money to operate schools."

Ray Austin, a property specialist with the Prince George's County Bureau of Property Management and Service in Maryland, also notes that just keeping a school vacant drains tax revenues because of vandalism, maintenance costs, and the lack of property taxes from the site.

Vandalism at just one school that is scheduled to be converted to a senior citizen's andcommunity center cost the county $250,000, Mr. Austin said.

The high cost of "mothballing" a school--keeping it vacant--was underscored by estimates made a few years ago by an organization called the Ohio School Business Officials. The group estimated that to "winterize" a school building could involve as many as 700 hours of custodial work, and the cost of keeping the building the safe for one year could exceed $7,000.

The experience of Prince George's County in facing declining enrollment points to the value of fresh thinking on the subject.

At a "Human Resources Conference" hosted by the National Association of Counties (naco) this month, a representative from the county government outlined the scope of their innovative plans for some of the 46 schools that have closed since 1960. The school board also has plans to close 27 more in the next four years. naco officials point to the county's program as a valuable "model" for other local governments.

The Prince George's government differs from other local governments, county officials suggest, in its emphasis on trying to sell vant schools to private businesses. To date, however, most of the 11 county schools that are in the process of being converted are being changed to such public uses as a police station, and such non-profit uses as a church school.

But those new uses for abandoned schools deny the government much-needed property tax revenues, according to Mr. Austin, making the prospect of private businesses using school sites more attractive. County officials say they also prefer sales to private businesses because of doubts about the local communities' financial ability to maintain schools for public purposes.

The most successful of the county's conversions has been the O.W. Phair Elementary School in Laurel, Md., which has been transformed into the Phair Office Park.

The school, which had been vacant for two years, was purchased in March 1981 for $500,000 by three developers, contingent on a zoning change that would permit offices in what had been a residential area. The school is half way through its conversion to modern offices, and already a quarter of the office space has been leased.

The county has also sold a school site to be medical offices. The key to successful sales to private businesses is winning political and community support for zoning changes, Mr. Austin says.

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