School district leaders may soon face increasingly urgent pressure to tackle one of the most-dreaded questions in education: Should we close or consolidate school buildings?
Roughly 1 percent of public school buildings closed every year between 2014 and 2018, according to research led by Douglas Harris, professor of education and economics at Tulane University.
That rate likely slowed during the pandemic, when COVID relief aid helped many districts push off financial woes, Harris said in an interview.
But now the bill is coming due in many places. Federal relief aid and pandemic-era state policies to protect schools from financial ruin are coming to a close. Enrollment declines are accelerating in many parts of the country.
Even with those factors at play, school closures tend to be measures of last resort for district leaders. Closures mean communities lose buildings and programs with deep roots in their neighborhoods. They sometimes draw negative press attention and produce unexpected costs.
Those losses aren’t always easily quantified, Harris said.
“Whenever you close a school, you disrupt relationships—friendships between students, between parents, between teachers,” he said.
Sometimes school closures even draw legal scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating the Jefferson Parish school district in Louisiana after the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center flagged the possibility that school closures there violated the civil rights of Black and brown students. A study released last year found that, between 2000 and 2018, majority-Black schools were about three times as likely to close as schools with smaller enrollments of Black students
Education Week this month talked to two district leaders whose school boards have approved their proposals to shutter a school building this year.
Erwin Garcia, superintendent of the Billings district in Montana, and Matt Carpenter, superintendent of the Oneida schools in New York, face criticism from some community members and uncertainty about how their districts will adjust in the short and long term.
But the superintendents and their teams considered a number of factors as they decided whether to close a school, which one to close, and how to execute the process. Here are a few:
Future finances, not just the present
The Billings school district has a $3.5 million deficit that’s been building up since before the pandemic.
But Garcia, who previously served as a district administrator in Houston, is more concerned from a fiscal perspective about how much the deficit could grow in the next few years.
“We’re not very attractive to the new generation of teachers,” Garcia said of the district and the state. “Why? Because we don’t pay enough.”
The teachers’ union will undoubtedly expect pay bumps during upcoming bargaining, as teachers across the country have secured significant raises in recent years in new contracts. Garcia wants to provide his staff with wages that keep pace with inflation and help them justify keeping their talents with the district.
Salaries and benefits for staff make up the bulk of every district’s annual operating budget. If those costs are continuing to rise, others, like the cost of operating an underused school building, must fall.
Trajectory of class sizes and staffing models
Two elementary schools in Oneida, N.Y., have only one class of students for each grade level. Some classes elsewhere in the district are as small as 13 or 14 students.
“If we’re talking about fiscally responsible, that’s not quite it,” said Carpenter, the district’s superintendent.
The district also has more than $5 million worth of counselors, tutors, and social workers whose salaries were funded by federal COVID relief money. Those dollars expire later this year, but Carpenter wants to avoid laying those people off, especially because they provide crucial support that will still be necessary beyond the next few months.
That means new expenses on an already-tightening budget. Through that lens, eliminating the costs of running a school building while transferring services to existing buildings seemed necessary, Carpenter said.
Trends in enrollment and population
The population of the city of Billings has grown in recent years. But the district’s enrollment has moved in the opposite direction, thanks to a decline in the birth rate.
Enrollment losses aren’t evenly distributed across the city. Overall, the district has seen a 1 percent drop in enrollment in the last five years. But schools in some areas, particularly on the city’s southern side, have seen as much as a 7 percent drop.
Garcia’s team evaluated the number of students each underenrolled school would need to achieve class sizes that meet state requirements for maximum class sizes and maximize the value of employed teaching staff. They identified five schools that each would need 50 to 90 more students for the building to be fully utilized.
Alternative sites for students and uses for buildings
Of those five schools, the Billings district landed on Washington Elementary as the site that would make the most sense for closure.
Part of that decision is purely financial. The school has the lowest enrollment of any in the district, and the highest cost per student. The school’s enrollment has dropped from 273 in 2018 to a projected 190 next school year, with further declines likely.
But Washington Elementary makes sense to Garcia and his team for other reasons, too.
For one, it’s near three other elementary schools that can easily accommodate new students without forcing former Washington Elementary families to make much longer commutes.
“Every single child will go to a nearby school,” Garcia said. “The schools around it have such low teacher-to-student ratios that we wouldn’t need to hire one single full-time employee.”
Washington Elementary also lends itself to repurposing, Garcia said. The district recently secured approval from the state board of education to open two new district-run charter schools: one with early-college programs for high schoolers, and one that provides resources to students who have dropped out of high school.
Garcia said the latter program, a lifeline for students who need help getting back on track, also boasts an underappreciated financial benefit: The more students who enroll in the city’s schools rather than leave them, the more enrollment-based funding the district will receive from the state.
In Oneida, meanwhile, a consultant proposed two viable options to consolidate schools by closing North Broad Elementary: keep the district’s three remaining elementary schools as K-5 schools, or restructure those buildings to serve fewer grade levels.
“The thing he led with is there’s no one specific model that works,” Carpenter said of the consultant.
Carpenter and colleagues preferred the latter approach. Next fall, all district students in pre-K, kindergarten, and 1st grade will attend school in one building; 2nd and 3rd grade will be located in another; and a third will house 4th and 5th grades.
In the coming months, district leaders will develop plans for transporting students, transferring students, and helping parents and students understand how the process that led to this change worked.
“Not everybody in the community was at all the meetings or had access to all the data points,” Carpenter said. “It’s an uphill battle to be able to adequately explain that to the parents and community who this directly affects.”