School & District Management

Study Warns of Limited Savings from Closing Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — November 01, 2011 6 min read
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Closing schools doesn’t save very much money in the context of an urban district’s budget, and selling or leasing surplus school buildings tends to be difficult because they’re often old and in struggling neighborhoods, a recent report from a Philadelphia research group says.

On the positive side, however, the study finds that students appear to make it through a school closure with minimal effects on their academic progress. And it says school districts can help generate some acceptance for a downsizing plan by involving the community early and establishing clear reasons for why certain schools must close.

The report, released Oct. 19, was written by the Philadelphia Research Initiative to foreshadow what the 154,000-student Philadelphia district can expect over the next few years as it plans to close a number of schools because of declining enrollments. The district currently has 70,000 empty seats, according to the report. School administrators have not decided which schools to close and how many, but internal school documents published in June by the website Philadelphia Public School Notebook listed 26 schools that could be shut down.

The report looks at school closings in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and the District of Columbia. Each of those districts has closed at least 20 schools in the past decade, and most of the buildings have been shuttered in the recent past.

For example, Pittsburgh, with around 25,300 students, went through a “right-sizing” effort that closed 22 schools in 2006. The district is now discussing closing seven more schools. The 17,400-student Kansas City district closed 29 schools—nearly half of its school buildings—in 2010.

A Matter of Context

Closing schools does save money, but in districts whose budgets add up to hundreds of millions of dollars or more, the final savings are relatively small, said Larry Eichel, the program director for the Philadelphia Research Initiative, which is a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Philadelphia’s current annual budget, for example, is $2.8 billion.

Six Cities Shuttering Buildings

To inform deliberations over plans to close schools in Philadelphia, researchers conducted case studies of recent school closings in six other urban districts.

Chicago
Closure Period: 2001-2009
Number Closed: 44
Buildings in Use: 602

Detroit
Closure Period: 2009-2010
Number Closed: 59
Buildings in Use: 130

Kansas City, Mo.
Closure Period: 2009-2010
Number Closed: 29
Buildings in Use: 29

Milwaukee
Closure Period: 2005-2010
Number Closed: 20
Buildings in Use: 137

Pittsburgh
Closure Period: 2006
Number Closed: 22
Buildings in Use: 64

District of Columbia
Closure Period: 2008
Number Closed: 23
Buildings in Use: 11

*As of 2011.

Source: The Philadelphia Research Initiative

“The savings are under a million dollars per school,” Mr. Eichel said. “That’s real money, but not money that changes anything fundamentally.”

The biggest chunk of district money is spent on teachers, and those staff members typically are still needed, just at different locations.

A district also has to pay for some maintenance on shuttered buildings so they don’t become neighborhood eyesores.

And districts should not expect a windfall from selling their old buildings. Those facilities are undesirable to businesses for some of the same reasons that districts decided to close them: The buildings are often located in areas that are losing population. Also, they tend to be in poor condition, and it may be hard to convert them to other purposes, Mr. Eichel said.

The study found examples of repurposing, however. In Milwaukee, a former middle school was bought last year for $600,000 to be converted into senior housing. In Chicago, several closed schools have been converted to charter schools.

Impact on Learning

In examining the academic performance of students in schools slated to be closed, the report focused on a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research that looked at students whose schools were closed between 2001 and 2006. That study found that student performance fell at schools that were slated to be shut down and remained low for the rest of the school year. A year later, though, the academic performance of those displaced students had rebounded to preclosure levels.

The Pew report also cites a study led by researchers from the RAND Corp. that examined achievement from students from closed schools in a “midsized urban district in the Northeast.” Though the district was not named, the paper noted that the district closed 22 schools in the 2005-06 school year, which corresponds with Pittsburgh’s experience.

That paper said students in the district whose schools were closed did see a drop in their reading and math scores, but researchers found the effect could be mitigated or eliminated if the students were moved to schools that were higher-performing than the ones they left behind.

The Pew report offers several tools that districts can use to reduce the pain of closing schools. For example, it suggests that outside experts can bring a level of objectivity to the proceedings. Seeking community support early is also essential, the report notes.

It says that the 45,000-student District of Columbia school system committed a misstep by moving too quickly to close schools in the face of a 30 percent decline in enrollment. Under the leadership of then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, the school system announced that closures were coming in September 2007, and the final vote to close 23 schools came, after much controversy, four months later.

Mary Filardo, the executive director of the Washington-based 21st Century School Fund, studies school facilities issues and agrees that the system in Washington moved too quickly to shut down schools. Too many school districts distrust the public when it comes to closure decisions, she said.

Taking It to the Public

“The reason you involve the community is not to make [closings] palatable,” she said. “The reason you involve the community is because you want to make better decisions.”

She added that people whose children attend school in such urban areas often “are working-class or low-income. They know about making tough decisions and struggling” and can understand the necessity for some closings.

As District of Columbia school officials learned, making a misstep in school closings can cause political fallout. The community uproar over the closings in Washington was one of the ingredients that led last year to the primary-election defeat of then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who had selected Ms. Rhee, and to the chancellor’s departure.

And after community members in Chicago protested that school- closure decisions were being made in secret, the Illinois legislature passed a law in August that governs how that 409,000-student system can make facilities decisions.

“The political fallout is from not having a trusting relationship with your public,” Ms. Filardo said.

Being Transparent

But involving the public can be a delicate balancing act, said Nancy R. Kodman, the executive director for academic and operations integration for Pittsburgh schools. Just introducing the problem to the community, she said, leads to people saying, “You don’t have any solutions? You don’t have any ideas?” But a full plan is criticized for being drawn up in secret.

“You lessen that by being as transparent as you can,” Ms. Kodman said.

When Pittsburgh closed more than 20 schools, she said, the district talked with the public about what it was hoping to achieve. Academic improvement was put forward as the top goal, and to eliminate some political horse-trading, the closures were considered as a group, in a single up-or-down vote by the school board.

While many urban districts are struggling with how to handle excess space, Ms. Filardo noted that Seattle is dealing with overcrowded classrooms, thanks to unexpected population growth. The Seattle Times reported in October that in one school, a 4th grade class is meeting in a hallway, and many classes are meeting in portables. An infusion of about 1,500 more students than expected is prompting the district to reopen some schools that it had closed, over community objection, in the past few years.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Closings No Fiscal Savior, Study Cautions

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