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Pressure to Close Schools Is Ramping Up. What Districts Need to Know

Just before the pandemic began, administrators for the Oneida school district in upstate New York started pondering a plan to consolidate two elementary schools where enrollment had been steadily declining for years.

The onset of COVID-19, and the burst of federal relief aid that followed it, put those plans on hold. In recent months, though, the 1,700-student district has revisited the possibility that it could better serve students and spend resources more prudently with five schools instead of six.

On paper, the decision might seem simple. Having one less building reduces the cost of facilities maintenance, as well as compensation for principals and their deputies, nurses, counselors, and other building aides. That, in turn, frees up funds that could be redirected to staffing and support for students at the remaining schools.

But closing a school is almost always a logistically and emotionally arduous process.

The Oneida district’s students live across 42 square miles, which means closing a school could lengthen bus rides for many. Staff at the shuttered school might not be keen on shifting to another school, meaning the district could find itself needing to fill positions it otherwise wouldn’t. And the school building slated for closure, North Broad Street Elementary, has been a fixture in the community since it opened in 1911, meaning the 10,000-person city would be losing a part of its identity.

“We heard from people saying, my father went to that school 90 years ago. Please don’t close the school,” said Matt Carpenter, the district’s superintendent since 2021. “That’s something that we have to consider.”

Dilemmas like these will almost certainly crop up for many district leaders in the coming months and years.

After a handful of years of state-level surpluses and unprecedented infusions of federal cash, the financial outlook for districts could be less rosy going forward. The rate of births nationwide is dropping and public school enrollment never fully bounced back as expected from pandemic declines, which means schools will have fewer students to educate, and fewer per-pupil funds to work with.

The pressure to close schools has already begun to accelerate in some places. Big-city districts like Boston, Memphis, Tenn., Wichita, Kan., and Jackson, Miss., are either considering plans to shutter and consolidate school buildings or have already decided to do so, as have plenty of smaller districts in states like Missouri and Indiana.

The still-growing body of research on the impacts of school closures suggests district leaders need to develop deliberate and detailed plans with abundant community input. Handled poorly, research shows, closures can exacerbate racial inequities and hamper student achievement. They can often fall short of generating significant savings as well.

Here are a few key factors districts need to keep top of mind as they ponder the costs and benefits of closing one or multiple schools:

Make realistic estimates of cost savings

The vast majority of school district budgets goes toward salaries and benefits for staff. Axing one facility to trim the costs of energy and maintenance may not guarantee a meaningful difference in many districts’ financial fortunes.

The process of losing a school building also brings its own expenses, said Francis A. Pearman, an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who studies school closures.

Districts often hire consultants to help sort through closure options or game out new transportation scenarios. Even the act of closing a physical building—boarding up doors and windows, erecting protective fencing, maintaining and marketing the building for a possible sale—costs money.

“When we’re thinking about closures purely from a financial standpoint, it’s not entirely clear that the arrow points in the direction that we would presume it to point,” Pearman said.

Still, districts constrained by limited resources often see value in cutting down on school buildings.

The Billings district in Montana has built up a deficit of $3.5 million over the last seven years. State education funding has declined, in part because overall enrollment has dropped slightly from 17,000 in 2018 to 16,500 students this year, with some portions of the district seeing steeper falls than others.

Even if that deficit were manageable without making big moves like closing a school, Garcia said, he can’t ignore that it will inevitably grow even deeper. Collective bargaining with the district’s staff unions is coming up. Teachers in a state whose average pay for educators is on the lower end nationally deserve a raise to keep pace with inflation, he believes.

“I cannot go to the teachers’ union and pretend that a 1 percent increase is going to address the 12 percent to 15 percent inflation that the teachers face right now,” Garcia said.

Instead, his team examined how much the district is spending per student on staff compensation in each school building. The average was roughly $5,000 per pupil, but in some schools with falling numbers of students, that figure approached $10,000.

District leaders determined that roughly 200 students from Washington Elementary School could move to one of three nearby schools without the need for a single new full-time employee. Beginning this fall, staff from that building will fill gaps in other schools.

“Nobody wants to work for a school district that is perpetually broke. I don’t think that sends a good message for the taxpayers,” Garcia said. “If we can do better, let’s do better.”

Explore viable alternatives

Schools are often the anchors of neighborhoods and communities, providing a crucial gathering place for social and cultural events. They’re also among the largest employers in an area.

Losing that community space and economic driver when a school closes can be harmful to nearby residents, especially when the former school sits in a neighborhood in poverty, or in a rural area with few or no other public spaces or employers.

Plus, closed school buildings often languish for years, falling into disrepair or eventually getting sold to a private company that changes its purpose.

“If we shut those school buildings down, those rural communities lose that source of social life and economic well-being,” said Mara Casey Tieken, an associate professor of education at Bates College who has conducted research on the impacts of school closures, particularly in rural areas.

In Billings, instead of leaving the building behind, Superintendent Garcia’s team plans to transform the facility into a home for two new district-run charter schools.

Closing the building altogether would have been more financially prudent, Garcia said. But he didn’t feel right arriving in the district from a faraway state and immediately moving to get rid of a beloved school building.

“No superintendent really wants to close schools just because of funds,” he said. “We don’t see this as something we want to do. We are forced to do it.”

Both charter schools will be governed by the Billings school board and receive state funding through Montana’s new charter school mechanism. One will serve as the first early college high school in the entire state, and the other will serve students who have dropped out of high school.

Districts facing acute pressure to close schools likely have more options at their disposal than many might assume, Tieken said, with some helping districts save enough money that building closures are no longer needed.

School buildings near each other might be able to share resources, like a special education teacher who covers two campuses, or a course offering in one building could be made available to students from multiple schools.

Dual enrollment programs that allow students to take college courses during high school can open up cost-sharing opportunities between schools and institutions of higher education.

Even offering a high-quality virtual education option could lead to cost savings if enough students enroll, she said.

The primary thing to avoid, by contrast, is forcing students to spend two hours on a bus to get to school each day.

“We need to be thinking about education and schooling in these more holistic ways,” Tieken said.

Think long-term

A school district in California recently sought Pearman’s advice on what to do about the pressing financial need to close a school building in a low-income neighborhood.

Pearman advised the district to take the long view. Could converting that facility to a new high school geared toward performing arts help draw new students from within and outside the district?

There would be upfront costs and lots of logistical challenges. But years from now, the effects could be transformative for the neighborhood.

“Those kind of subtle changes can do incredible work for reshaping the future of a school that moves it away from the trajectory of closure to a trajectory of livelihood,” Pearman said.

District leaders can approach the prospect of closure with a spirit of creativity. Garcia’s effort to create new charter schools and reap the benefits of a new revenue stream represents one approach.

In Oneida, the plan to close one of four K-5 elementary schools isn’t happening in isolation. The district is also preparing to divide students in the three remaining elementary buildings by grade level: pre-K, kindergarten, and 1st grade in one building; grades 2 and 3 in another; and grades 4 and 5 in the third.

Right now, for instance, 4th graders might have different access to educational opportunities depending on which building they’re in. Under the new model, all services for 4th graders would be aligned, as they’ll all be housed under one roof.

Carpenter sees a similar benefit for special education. For the last few years, elementary students with disabilities went to one of two school buildings based on the services they needed. Now, they’ll be able to attend school in a building with all the students from their own grade level, with more opportunities to receive instruction alongside their peers in traditional classrooms.

The plan has drawn ire from some community members, including a local group planning to petition the state department of education to intervene. Carpenter said his team has labored to help the community understand the proposal at as many as 25 public meetings.

“Not everybody in the community was at all the meetings or had access to all the data points,” Carpenter said. “It’s a very challenging situation.”

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