School & District Management

Low Enrollment Prompts Cities To Shut Schools

By Robert C. Johnston — May 09, 2001 8 min read
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Falling enrollment—owing partly to an exodus of students to charter schools in some places—is behind a rash of decisions this year to close schools in urban districts.

In Pittsburgh, 12 schools are scheduled to close their doors. Dayton, Ohio, school officials have announced a three-year plan to close 14 schools, while Baltimore has put nine schools on its closure list. Meanwhile, Detroit recently targeted six schools for closure, and Buffalo could shutter more than a dozen in the coming years.

Some of those districts are closing aging sites to make room for new schools. But school leaders also say they don’t need as many buildings as they once did because economic blight, lower birthrates, and middle-class flight have eroded their enrollments.

What’s more, expanded attendance options, especially publicly financed but largely independent charter schools, are luring a new constituency of students away from traditional public schools, they acknowledge.

“Underutilized schools are one of the things that pushed us to make these recommendations” for closings, said Jerrie L. Bascome McGill, the superintendent of the Dayton district, where enrollment has fallen from 32,000 in 1981 to 21,000 today. The district projects its enrollment will be between 12,000 and 18,000 by 2004.

“We must take corrective actions now,” Ms.McGill said.

Biting the Bullet

In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, study after study revealed the same finding: The city school system was spending too much on facilities. That didn’t make it easier, however, to bite the political bullet and close schools.

Last year, the climate began to change when the district’s new superintendent was greeted by a $40 million deficit and declining enrollment. He was also handed a study that cited Pittsburgh’s facility, maintenance, and operations costs as one of the reasons the city had one of the highest per-pupil spending rates in the state.

By December, Superintendent John W. Thompson had guided a plan through the school board to close 12 schools—one with just 102 students—out of 97 schools in the system. It was the first time since 1980 that the district closed more than one school at a time.

“I had to do something. I had no other choice,” said Mr. Thompson, whose district’s enrollment has fallen from 80,000 students 30 years ago to 39,000 today. “I’m getting a lot of flack, but people are also seeing that I didn’t create the deficit.”

Closing schools is seldom easy. Schools are often the hearts and souls of their communities, and an emotional touchstone for adults who once attended them. And, much like the closures of military bases, school closure plans can quickly mobilize angry protesters.

“The landscape is littered with politicians who have tried to close military bases, and it’s no different with school superintendents trying to balance facility needs,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based network of urban school systems.

There comes a time, though, when there is little choice, said Carmen V. Russo, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools.

The last time Baltimore closed more than one school at the same time was 20 years ago—even though enrollment has fallen from 135,000 to the current level of about 106,000 in 10 years, and is projected to drop to 90,000 over the next five.

“This was a long time in coming,” said Ms. Russo, who will see seven of her district’s 173 schools close this summer. “Some buildings were at 40 to 50 percent of capacity.”

The district also faced increasing pressure from the state of Maryland, which has been involved in the district’s day-to-day operations for the past four years, to reassess its facility needs.

“The state, which controls construction dollars, made it clear they would not give us money without closing schools,” Ms. Russo said. “I walked in here 10 months ago knowing I would have to close schools.”

After several rounds of public hearings, the school board in March approved a total of nine closures—down from the original 12 that were proposed. Ms. Russo predicted another round of closings for next year.

Community groups are appealing the closure list to state officials, arguing in part that the district did not provide enough opportunity for public comment. The groups also take issue with the consultant’s report that helped identify the schools to be closed.

“We’re not arguing to close or not to close schools, but we want a one-year moratorium to try and satisfy what [the district] considers to be inadequacies,” said Dennis Livingston, a community activist and health consultant who is involved in the Baltimore appeals. “The board hired a consultant to justify the closures, but not to figure out ways to avoid closures.”

Charter Pressure

In Dayton, school leaders hope their plan to reorganize the district from 46 to 32 schools over the next three years will help them avoid the kind of state pressure that was applied in Baltimore.

In addition to bringing the facilities budget in line with current enrollments, the Dayton plan should free up money for instruction, district officials say. The effort is part of a bigger push to make the district’s schools more competitive academically, especially with local charter schools.

Outflows of white families, combined with declining birthrates, have driven down the enrollment in Dayton’s schools over the past two decades.

More recently, however, charter schools have siphoned away students. Since the first of the independent public schools opened in Dayton in 1998 with fewer than 60 students, the number of charter sites has grown to 12, with a total enrollment of 2,750 students.

Superintendent McGill estimates that if those students were enrolled in her district, they would bring an additional $14 million in annual per-pupil funding from the state.

The district should save an estimated $5.5 million, mostly in reduced maintenance costs, in the first year of the changes, much of which will be redirected to academic programs, she said.

At the same time, thanks to a state-financed school construction program, all of Dayton’s schools will be refurbished or newly built by 2008. “We’ll have a new district,” Ms. McGill said.

It’s still unclear what the district will do with the closed buildings. Unlike in Baltimore, where the city owns the school buildings, the Dayton district owns its properties.

While Dayton residents have strongly protested some of the planned closings, Ms. McGill hopes the public will take note that they are part of a bigger improvement effort. “As a district, we must come together to raise achievement, attendance, and graduation rates,” she said. “We have to chart our own path and become competitive.”

Dayton is not the only district feeling an enrollment pinch from charter schools.

Detroit school officials say the estimated 10,000 students who attend local charter schools will account for half the 20,000 students they expect to have lost between 1997 and next fall, when enrollment is projected to fall to 157,000. Detroit has also lost students under a state law that allows students to transfer to neighboring districts.

“In the mid- 1990s, we began to experience growth,” said Michael W. Alberts, the executive director of student information for the Detroit schools. “We believe we would still be growing if we didn’t lose this membership to charter schools and other public school districts.”

Mr. Casserly of the Great City Schools said that, nationwide, urban schools certainly feel the presence of charter schools. But he added that “facility decisions about opening and closing buildings are not being swayed much on a broad scale” by charter schools.

Alternative Approach

Hoping to find an alternative to closing schools, a group of city leaders in Portland, Ore., is trying to chart a new path for the use and management of district facilities.

The Innovation Partnership is a new, nonprofit group formed to tackle citywide problems that have defied previous efforts at resolution. Made up of respected leaders from the private and public sector, the Innovation Partnership’s first job is to study excess space in the Portland school district.

“We are creating a long-term business plan for managing these assets for the long-term benefit of education,” said Ruth Scott, the president of the partnership and the former head of a downtown business association.

The group will spend the next year studying ways to cut maintenance costs and generate revenue from the district’s 106 properties, which sit in 20 different land-use zones.

While the Portland district owns more buildings than it needs to accommodate its 54,000 students, a number expected to drop over the next 10 years, the extra space is typically used by community groups for nonschool functions.

“This is a highly complex property- management situation that the school district, which is in the business of education, does not have the capacity to get its arms around,” Ms. Scott said. “Nationally, I suspect there are similar issues.”

Some of the ideas to be considered by the group include renting empty space to business or community organizations, providing long-term leases on district property, and studying new ways to manage the properties.

“We are turning over every rock we can lay our hands on,” Ms. Scott said. “Empty buildings are not a good thing for community.”

Mr. Casserly said that districts routinely ask consultants to review how their facilities are used.

“This is a dicey issue. When you look at facility space only from the view of cost per square foot, people conclude you have way too much space,” he said. “If they look at the [positive] effects of small schools on academic achievement, you conclude something entirely different. It depends on how you look at the question.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Low Enrollment Prompts Cities To Shut Schools


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