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School closures due to declining enrollment are on the rise for some large districts.

As the school year begins, administrators may discover there are more empty seats in their classrooms than in previous years.

Large-scale school closings due to low enrollment have recently become a trend across urban America. Consider the 23 school closures in Philadelphia, 22 in New York, 15 in the District of Columbia, and 54 in Chicago.

“There’s been a decline in school enrollments because the school-age population is down,” says Emily Dowdall, a senior associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s down even where overall population is growing. At the same time, the charter school sector has been expanding rapidly over the last decade.”

In fact, according to a Pew study, 42 percent of closed public schools are being used for charters. In certain cases, the drop in enrollment reflects student flight from schools with low test scores and crumbling infrastructure.

Pew looked at 267 school properties that were sold, leased, or repurposed between 2005 and 2012. Besides those bought or leased by charters, buildings are also being converted to affordable senior housing and community centers or torn down to build public parks.

Selling school buildings, even newer ones with modern amenities and energy-efficient systems, can pose challenges, says Shannon Jaax, director of the KCPS Repurposing Initiative. According to its bond agreement, Kansas City Public Schools is required to sell buildings at fair market value, obtain the approval of the bond trustee, and offer only short-term leases, which may not appeal to nonprofits that don’t have the capital to purchase a property outright.

Of the 39 buildings closed by Kansas City Public Schools—29 have been closed since 2008—30 are going through the repurposing process, says Jaax. “We have more closed buildings than open schools serving children,” she says.

So far, the district has sold five buildings, which are now being used for a variety of purposes, including charter schools, a community center, mixed-use housing, and commercial space. Another is being leased to an after-school program.  

But what if student enrollment rebounds? Jaax warns districts against disposing of too many schools. Her office assessed several growth and decline scenarios, and identified eight school sites it plans to keep for future use.

Meanwhile, research shows that sale prices frequently fell below projections, with most buildings selling between $200,000 and $1 million. Districts need to partner with city planners, redevelopment authority agencies, and others, says Dowdall, to succeed in repurposing projects.

“Schools are the largest buildings in neighborhoods,” she adds. “What becomes of them has a tremendous impact on neighborhoods. It’s another reason to work together.”


—Back to School 2013— 

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