School Climate & Safety

As Enrollment Drops, Ohio Districts Paring Plans for Construction

By Catherine Gewertz — November 28, 2006 4 min read
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Caught in a steep enrollment decline, the Cleveland school district must revise its $1 billion construction program.

This year’s enrollment of 54,000 students reflects a drop of 28 percent since 2001, when voters approved a bond issue that, with state matching funds, allowed the district to undertake a program to replace, repair, or renovate most of its 122 buildings.

But recent state enrollment projections suggest that only 45,300 students will remain on the district’s rolls by 2010, prompting its leaders to start redrafting the facilities plan.

“Needless to say, with a lot less kids, your building plan needs to change,” said Dan Burns, Cleveland’s chief operating officer.

Mr. Burns hopes to have the new plan ready for the school board to review in the spring. It would need approval by the board and by the Ohio School Facilities Commission, the state agency that oversees school construction.

In feeling the pressure of declining enrollment, Cleveland has company in Ohio and across the nation. Mr. Burns said that as the Toledo school district’s business manager, he had just revised its building plan when he left four months ago to come to Cleveland.

Scaling Back

The Ohio School Facilities Commission has reduced the estimated cost of projects in these urban districts by $425 million:

Akron Columbus
Cincinnati Dayton
Cleveland Toledo

Citing an enrollment drop of 31 percent in six of the state’s largest districts in the past four years, the school facilities commission announced in August that it had reduced the price tag of the projects in Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo to $3.97 billion—$425 million less than called for in the districts’ original 2002 plans.

“In all six urbans, we have adjusted downward,” said Rick Savors, a spokesman for the agency. “We prefer the term ‘right-size.’ We have adjusted segments [of the projects] based on decreases in enrollment.”

Migration and Charters

William Wendling, the executive director of the Ohio 8 Coalition, an advocacy group for those six districts, Canton, and Youngstown, said that five years ago, 300,000 children attended regular public schools in those eight districts, but only 240,000 do now.

Mr. Wendling attributed the enrollment drop to two forces: migration from center cities to the suburbs, and the increasing popularity of charter schools.

Charter school enrollment in Ohio has grown from about 3,000 students in 2000 to more than 72,000 today, he said, and most of that growth has been in urban areas. Charter schools in Cleveland enroll about 12,000 students. Such schools are publicly financed but are independent of their local school districts.

Changing a building program because of significant enrollment shifts is tricky, Mr. Wendling said, because it is difficult to forecast how long the current dynamics will exert their influence.

“Does the draw of charter schools begin to level off at some point? And if so, when?” he said. “Do kids go away to charters and then come back? And what is the influence of new school building in bringing new kids in [to the district]? No one really knows.”

The revisions to Cleveland’s plan are in their earliest stages, so details have not yet taken shape. Mr. Savors of the Ohio School Facilities Commission said it was too early to tell how Cleveland’s next round of changes might affect the overall cost of the construction program. The most recent estimates put the cost of the current program at $1.1 billion, with $780 million provided by the state and $380 million by the district.

Mr. Burns of the Cleveland district said he is inclined to focus first on taking a small-schools approach to K-8 schools, possibly by creating “more small, community-oriented buildings.” That framework could call for modifying existing, underutilized spaces, or require new construction, he said.

The first four segments of the existing plan will likely be unaffected, he said. Those stages call for completion of repairs or renovations on five more schools in the next few years, designs to be finished on 10 new schools, and 11 more to be built or renovated.

Since construction began in 2002, 11 schools have been replaced or repaired, and all schools have had their roofs, windows, lighting, and electrical systems brought up to a “warm, safe, and dry” standard.

Mr. Burns worries that as districts scale back in the face of an outflow to charter schools, they risk having too little space to accommodate returning students in the event that charter schools close.

Advice on Vintage Schools

Many urban areas nationwide are grappling with sagging student populations in their center-city neighborhoods, said Mary W. Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which was one of a group of organizations that issued a recent analysis of patterns of school construction in the past decade. (“Facilities Spending Criticized as Uneven,” Nov. 1, 2006.)

The group’s research shows, she said, that new construction accounts for more than 40 percent of facility-plan price tags, which doesn’t make sense when enrollment is declining. Another sizable chunk of money goes into adding space. Districts losing students might consider a bigger emphasis, instead, on improving existing buildings, she said.

“Cleveland should be really careful about cutting back on the size of the program,” she said. “It’s got to be targeted, and make sense in terms of where they are investing. Too often, buildings drive the planning, as opposed to programs driving the planning.”

For instance, she said, a district could address outdated or substandard aspects of an old building, such as bad plumbing, and preserve good qualities such as high ceilings and large windows, while adding space linked to what it sees as its areas of growth.

“A lot of those buildings are really well built,” Ms. Filardo said. “Not to build on that enormous value is ridiculous.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as As Enrollment Drops, Ohio Districts Paring Plans for Construction

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