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A Final Thought

Fill, Don't Close, Underused Schools.

Last month, I wrote about the misconception that a small school must be closed because it cannot operate a full program without a large number of students. That is simply not true, and using that as the “educational reason” to close a small school is being dishonest.

But there may be a legitimate financial reason to close an underutilized school. If you have a school that was designed for 600 students and now serves 300 or fewer children, can you afford to keep it open? The cost of running and maintaining the physical building, and the effect on the overall school budget must be considered.

That raises two questions in my mind. How much do you really save when you close a school and move its students, and what do you do with the empty building? It could be boarded up and allowed to deteriorate but this is not an option that should be seriously considered. At the very least, the building will have to be heated, kept in good running order and protected from vandalism by regular visits and patrols. Closing a school will cut some of the operating costs, but certainly not all.

Another temptation is to sell the property. I have worked in several districts that sold off school buildings when population declined only to find that there were no suitable sites for new schools when student population started to rise again. Property, particularly in urban or settled suburban areas, is a valuable commodity and should not be surrendered in an effort to save a few immediate dollars.

Is there another option? I think there is. Closing a school is a wrench not just to the children and their parents, but to the community. Students, parents and community would be better served if the school could be kept open and the building used to house not just students, but also other needed services. Instead of possibly destroying a community by taking away its school, the community is enhanced by maintaining its school and adding other compatible services.

What kinds of services? I have visited elementary schools that play host to, or share a site with a senior center. It works out very well. The seniors occupy a few of the empty classrooms and also have the opportunity to use the school’s kitchen, cafeteria, gym, art and music rooms and the library. The result is a community building serving both youngsters and oldsters and affording each the space and facilities they need. It takes a little scheduling effort to keep everyone in their place, but once that is done it’s a win/win for everyone involved.

There are even some unexpected bonuses. In one school, the seniors volunteered to keep the school library open and to check books in and out when a librarian was not available. In another, seniors volunteered to read to the younger children, and some, who were interested, were invited to serve as foster grandparents to needy children.

Here’s another possibility. Recently, I have noticed signs advertising the opening of “drop-in” medical centers usually sponsored by a local hospital. The idea is to provide a convenient place where a person can go for treatment of an injury, an allergic reaction, a severe cold or what have you without going to a hospital. It’s faster and less expensive both for the individual and for the healthcare system.

Why not invite one of these centers to open in your underutilized school building? It would help defray the costs of keeping the school open and could reduce some operating costs by serving as the school’s healthcare center, carrying out routine tests and treatment now the responsibility of a school nurse.

Does your district provide pre-kindergarten or other early education programs? If it does not, there is likely to be increasing pressure to get such a program underway. One possible means to do that — invite a private pre-school to take space in your underutilized school. Having a private pre-school program is not the same as having the district operate one, but it gets a needed program started without taxpayer funds. The district might opt to subsidize the tuition for parents who cannot afford it, since there is significant evidence that children who attend pre-school programs do better when they enter “real school.” Any subsidy would be more than made up by the reduction of the number of children needing supplementary programs in elementary school.

The point is this: If you have an underutilized school, rather than rushing to close it, look for ways to fill some of the space with programs that will benefit the community and, at the same time, keep the school operating for its children and parents.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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