Student Shift, Tight Budgets Heighten School-Closing Woes

By Susan Walton — March 24, 1982 14 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the face of considerable public opposition, the school board of the Columbus, Ohio, public schools voted last week to close 13 of the district’s 139 schools.

Several weeks earlier, the Minneapolis school board voted to close 18 of the city’s 79 elementary and secondary schools--a move that has prompted some parents to threaten legal action.

In Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington, the final decision on closing about half of the 28 schools that the board believes should close will be made by the state board of education. In Boston, according to a report from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, “The superintendent and school committee should plan on closing between five and 10 elementary schools this July.”

And in Detroit, the school board voted on March 3 to close 19 of the district’s approximately 300 schools because of drops in enrollment and a $37-million budget deficit.

The situation has become a familiar one in school districts around the country over the past 10 years. This year, however, although it is still unclear whether a record number of additional schools are being shut, controversies over school-closing proposals are preoccupying administrators in many large and small districts nationally. And several factors are adding further complications:

New census figures predict an increase in elementary-school-age children around 1990, which could call into service again many of the elementary schools now being sold, converted, or razed.

The decline in enrollment is reaching the secondary schools, forcing officials in many districts to close high schools. Not only do many communities form strong emotional ties to high schools and their programs, but the majority have only one high school and cannot close it unless they merge the remaining students with another district’s.

Tighter-than-usual budgets mean that most decisions to close schools must be made almost entirely on financial grounds. A school with an excellent program that is operating at only half of its capacity will probably not be spared, as it might have been several years ago.

Over the past decade, school officials in 25 of the largest districts in the country have closed approximately 700 schools, according to an informal survey by school officials in Columbus, Ohio. Chicago is in the lead, with 101 schools, with New York City following with 70 schools. St. Louis, with 59, and Cleveland, with 51, come next, and Columbus, with 49 schools closed since 1972, places fifth.

Closing a school, many educators agree, is one of the most difficult situations an administrator can face. “On one hand,” said Michael A. Berger, assistant professor of education at Vanderbilt University’s George Peabody College for Teachers, “you may have a naturally integrated school, with good programs, that’s everything you’d want in a school.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “you have an underutilized building that’s costly to maintain. Do you close the school, or leave it open? It’s a complex question, a real value choice.”

In essence, several school officials noted, school closings symbolize a fundamental administrative dilemma: Running an efficient, effective school system and pleasing students and parents are extremely difficult to do simultaneously.

And although in many areas administrators report that citizens realize school closings are inevitable, there is still typically a public reaction when the closings are announced: “We know you have to close schools, but not my school.”

Statistics Unavailable

There are no national statistics on the precise number of schools that will close for good this June, nor are there figures on the number that have been closed thus far because of declining enrollment.

But it is clear the problem remains substantial. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (nces), there were 3,173 fewer elementary and secondary schools in operation at the beginning of the 1980 school year than there were in 1970. These figures, however, include consolidations as well as closings that occurred because of enrollment declines, according to a spokesman for nces.

According to a survey conducted by the General Accounting Office, at the start of the 1978-1979 school year there were 2,493 vacant schools in 19 states.

Some experts place the figure higher. The Educational Facilities Laboratory in New York City, a nonprofit research organization, estimates that 7,000 elementary and secondary schools have closed in the last 10 years.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that the focus of the problem will shift and that although the rate of elementary-school closings has peaked, the closing of high schools has just begun.

“A lot of people are excited about the fact that there will be more kids. What that means for education is that it’s going to get more complicated,” said Ellen Bussard, project director at the Educational Facilities Laboratory. “There’s going to be a kind of roller-coaster going through the schools,” she added.

“Enrollment,” said Mr. Berger, “is a lumpy phenomenon.”

Public Criticism

Most school closings are accompanied by public criticism of varying degrees, ranging from irate letters to the editor of the local newspaper to lawsuits.

“In each community, the school closing is unique to that community,’' said Gary Marx, associate executive director for the American Association of School Administrators (aasa). “If you have the expectation that you can close a number of schools without conflict, that’s an unrealistic expectation,” he said.

“It’s got a dynamic all its own,” said JohnWeston, assistant to the chancellor for the New York City Public Schools, where officials estimate they will need to close 10 schools this year. In New York City, as in many other districts, the board of education has established a formal procedure for deciding which schools to close and when to close them.

The procedure, however, is no guarantee against adverse public reaction. “There’s a rational procedure. I think the main concern is the symbolic value of the school to its community,” Mr. Weston said.

Public reaction, he added, “varies depending on the school. Some communities are willing to close schools. Others will go to the wall.”

In Columbus, where the board voted to close 13 schools (three of which will be reopened in September as “alternative” schools offering special programs), the number of students has edged steadily downward. The schools’ financial situation is becoming “increasingly dismal,” said Robert Grossman, a spokesman for the district.

School officials followed the school board’s policy on deciding which schools should be closed--comparing enrollment, capacity, the condi-tion of buildings, and other factors. The decision was neither arbitrary nor unexpected, Mr. Grossman said.

Nevertheless, the board’s announcement that the schools would probably be closed, made several weeks before members took a final vote, provoked considerable public opposition.

Selling the School

The board members proposed closing Central High School, an old and popular school located on 16 acres in downtown Columbus. Critics accused them of selecting that school, rather than another high school, because they could sell or lease it for a large sum of money.

The action will require officials to relocate 4,145 of the district’s approximately 70,000 students--including the school-board president’s child and the child of the judge who has placed the district under court order for desegregation.

The announcement, followed by public hearings held over a period of several weeks, prompted criticism from some parents that the transfer would be unduly disruptive for the students. And students, parents, and alumni all objected to the closing of Central High School, one of the oldest high schools in the district; one hearing convened to discuss the closing ended when Joseph L. Davis, the district superintendent, was booed off the stage, Mr. Grossman said.

The March 16 meeting at which the board took a final vote was attended by approximately 100 citizens, who presented two hours of testimony prior to the vote. And although the public testimony and suggestions were taken into account and affected the district’s plans for relocating students, the 13 schools in question will still close in June.

In Minneapolis, where the school board has voted to close 18 schools, there was also considerable public opposition. The board took the action--which will eliminate some 25 percent of the district’s “student spaces"--to ward off budget deficits and in response to a decline in enrollment, according to William Phillips, deputy superintendent for the Minneapolis Public Schools.

The board chose to close the schools in “one fell swoop,” Mr. Phillips said, because school officials believed that “phasing in [the plan] would be more difficult” and that a long-range plan was necessary. The officials also chose to have the school closings coincide with major revisions in curricula and programs--a measure that Mr. Phillips said has prompted many critics to change their position.

“Most of the opposition has come because of the new boundary lines,’' Mr. Phillips said, adding that the attendance boundaries for every school in the district had been altered.

Save Our Schools, an organization of parents established in response to the closing decisions, is investigating the possibility of legal action against the school system.

Racial Balance

Columbus and Minneapolis share with Montgomery County a situation that frequently complicates school closings: the need to maintain racial balance.

Montgomery County’s minority students--who constitute about 23 percent of the total enrollment--are unevenly distributed around the county. Critics of the school board’s decision on which schools to close--which differed from the recommendation made by the superintendent--claim that the decision will in the long run render one high school with a large minority enrollment “not viable.”

By changing the feeder pattern, the critics say, the school will suffer declines in enrollment and other changes that will make it a prime candidate for closure in several years.

Officials from about half the 28 schools to be closed are appealing the decision. And the situation is further complicated because a recent school-board election shifted the balance of power from “liberals” to “conservatives” who vowed to end districtwide busing. The final decision will be made by the state board of education.

Formal Criteria

Most school districts that have undertaken multiple school closings have, by now, established formal criteria for determining which buildings should be closed.

In Columbus, for example, the school board developed a policy several years ago that takes into account factors such as the capacity at which the school is operating, the enrollment, the racial balance, the ease with which students can be transported to another school, and the ''burden” on students and parents.

Montgomery County, where officials closed 34 schools between 1973 and 1981, has also established about 10 criteria for deciding which schools should be closed. The district has also developed a 15-year master plan designed to address the changing enrollment patterns while maintaining educational quality, according to Kenneth K. Muir, a spokesman for the district.

But difficulties remain, Mr. Muir acknowledged. “Our problem is that Continued while there is some objective data, there is no nice neat formula. There are judgment factors that enter into it.”

For example, he said, there is no way to assess the role of the school in the community. “When it comes to weighing the information, well-meaning and well-intentioned people are going to reach different conclusions.”

But in Detroit, where this year brings the most sweeping closing decisions ever made in the system, the school board has no formal or long-range plan, according to Stephen D. Chennault, a spokesman for the district. The board responds to the issues as they arise, and acts in response to recommendations from the district’s superintendent, Arthur Jefferson, he said.

Mr. Marx of the school administrators’ association suggests that long-range planning, carried out in advance of the actual need to close schools, may be helpful. “I think it’s a good idea for a school district to take a look at policies that involve their system for closing schools and to develop a yardstick--some guidelines--to follow in determining whether schools can be closed,” he said.

“Set up board policies before you need them,” he advised. “It’s better to establish policies before the heat of the event.”

But a study conducted by Mr. Berger of Vanderbilt suggests that some of the “conventional wisdom” about how best to carry out school closings may not be accurate.

In an analysis of 70 case studies of school districts around the country, the researcher examined the question of why communities differ in their reaction to the closing of schools. The analysis focused on four factors commonly believed to ease school closing.

‘Best Choice’

The speed with which a district puts school closings into effect, for example, is believed by many administrators to affect the community reaction. “The prescription is that districts that go quickly have trouble,” Mr. Berger said. “The theory is that if you plan comprehensively, the community will see it as the best choice.”

The analysis, however, failed to support this theory. “The more comprehensive and the longer the time frame, the greater the opposition from the public,” Mr. Berger said.

The “participation” theory, which operates on the assumption that communities “explode” because they were not given a chance to participate in the decision-making process, also failed to measure up. Of the many groups whose participation is believed to be important, Mr. Berger found, only teachers lessened community opposition when they were involved.

In looking at the relationship between the community and school officials, Mr. Berger also discovered that only one aspect of the situation actually influenced the degree of community opposition: “If the board and the superintendent were together, the relative opposition was lower,” he said.

The location of the community, he found, also affects the likelihood of opposition; urban districts are more likely to experience substantial opposition to closings than are either rural or suburban districts.

The extent to which these conclusions can be applied to all districts is unclear, Mr. Berger said. However, he noted, “There are some contradictions to our original thinking on how to prevent community opposition to school closings.”

School officials who must close schools also become de facto real-estate agents.

Many districts, notes Ellen Bussard of the Educational Facilities Laboratory, welcome one empty school building, which can be used as a community center or for some other civic purpose. They may not find five or six as useful. “The easy uses and the easy buildings have been used up in most towns,” Ms. Bussard said.

The main options considered by most school officials, according to an aasa report, “Declining Enrollment-Closing Schools,” are conversion to other uses, joint occupancy by a school and another user, and the leasing of empty classrooms to another party.

Many districts lease the space to another tenant for day-care or health-care facilities, or other uses. High schools, because they are larger, are more difficult to transform to another use, Ms. Bussard said. However, she added, they can sometimes be successfully modified into apartments or condominiums.

“Joint occupancy” is an attractive option, but in some districts, such as Columbus, zoning regulations and other administrative difficulties create more problems than they solve.

“Mothballing,” in which the school is maintained but not used by the district, offers a safeguard against future enrollment increases, but is expensive, Mr. Berger noted. Vandalism can be a problem and some neighborhoods object to the presence of a vacant school in their midst.

Real Estate Factor

Sometimes the likely proceeds from the sale or lease of an empty school may help officials decide which of several schools they should close. Central High School in Columbus is located on a prime piece of downtown real estate, and school officials considered that, along with other factors, when they closed the school. “It’s not something to scoff at,” Mr. Grossman noted.

In New York City, board policy “strongly encourages” officials to find another user for the school before deciding to close it, according to Mr. Weston. The attractiveness of vacant New York City schools, however, varies considerably with the location, he said.

In some areas, such as the South Bronx, there are few takers. In other neighborhoods, the demand exceeds the supply. In Manhattan, he said, “People call up all the time offering to buy the schools for a dollar a year,” Mr. Weston noted. “They think we’re hard pressed to give away mid-Manhattan real estate.”


Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Boosting Student and Staff Mental Health: What Schools Can Do
Join this free virtual event based on recent reporting on student and staff mental health challenges and how schools have responded.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Practical Methods for Integrating Computer Science into Core Curriculum
Dive into insights on integrating computer science into core curricula with expert tips and practical strategies to empower students at every grade level.
Content provided by

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: October 11, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: September 27, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: September 20, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education From Our Research Center What's on the Minds of Educators, in Charts
Politics, gender equity, and technology—how teachers and administrators say these issues are affecting the field.
1 min read
Stylized illustration of a pie chart
Traci Daberko for Education Week