Closing Doors

Tips for deciding whether to renovate or rebuild school facilities.

With enrollment numbers growing, school officials in Stamford, Conn., knew they needed to do something to add space at Westover Elementary School. They studied the site, crunched the numbers, and wrestled with the multi-million-dollar question that nearly every district has to face sooner or later: Re-invest in an old building, or construct a new school?

"We worked with the district on two or three separate plans for renovations and significant additions," says Jeff Sells, a design leader with Fletcher Thompson Architects, Bridgeport, Conn.

Ultimately, the district decided it would be better educationally and financially to build a new Westover Elementary School. It opened last fall on the same campus as the old school.

Each district has to decide the best way to deal with its older buildings. In doing so, officials need to take into account the school's educational needs, the community's attachment to a facility, and what the district can afford.

"Whether you can renovate or should just rebuild-that varies with every project," says Sells. "Don't assume you can't renovate or convert an old building."

For Westover, a new school made more sense. But at the same time, Stamford decided to renovate and expand another of its schools-Hart Elementary, a much older building.

"Hart had much more solid construction and more charming architecture," says Pat Broom, a former school-board member who is now the city's director of operations.

Using resources wisely

Initially, the district asked the city for money to replace both Hart and Westover. The oldest section of Hart was built in 1905, and Westover was built in 1955.

"Westover was not a great building to begin with," says Broom. "It was not energy-efficient. The flow was bad. You had to go through classrooms to get to other classrooms."

City officials wanted to explore renovation.

"The city said, 'Go back and make sure you're using the space efficiently, and look at modulars and other alternatives,'" says Broom.

As time passed, the political climate changed, and city officials began leaning toward a new Westover.

"Westover was old and was in horrendous condition," says Broom. "We said, 'Are we really sure [renovation] is the best use of our resources?'"

The district wanted to increase space at Westover to 135,000 square feet from 65,000 square feet.

"When you factor in the age of the building and the compromises they would have to make, they decided to go with a totally new building," says Sells.

Building a new school would cost about $16 million, while renovating and upgrading the old space would cost about $13.5 million.

But if it built a new facility, the city would receive $2 million more in reimbursement from the state, making the costs more comparable.

"A new building will last much longer than the modulars that were part of the retrofit plan-50 to 60 years instead of 20 to 25," says Tony LoFaso, the district's facilities manager. "And in a new building, the space is planned for the educational program."

Meanwhile, at Hart, the district pursued renovation.

"Even though it was an older building, it was in better shape," says LoFaso. "It had more historical significance."

Finding the right site

Building a new Westover elementary posed problems for the district. The only site available for a new Westover was the old Westover site.

"There are very few undeveloped parcels in Stamford where you could build a school," says Broom. "The real-estate prices are out of this world. Schools have to compete on the market for sites with large corporations looking to move out of New York City.

"We should have bought land 10 or 15 years ago when the real-estate market was depressed, but the city didn't have a lot of spare cash back then, either."

Stamford had no place to relocate Westover's 800 students during construction, so workers had to build the new school while the old school remained open.

Since Westover was on a 10-acre site, most of the construction could be completed while the old school was still standing.

"We had to wait to build the gym until the other school was torn down," says Sells.

Once the old building was razed, the district was able to add playgrounds that the site could not accommodate before.

Often, districts trying to vacate old space have to contend with community members who have strong emotional ties to a school. That wasn't the case at Westover.

"There wasn't emotional attachment to the school, but there was tremendous attachment to the smoke stacks," says Broom. "There were three smokestacks that were painted like candy canes. But there was too much asbestos on the smokestacks to preserve them."

Instead, says Broom, the construction companies donated three PVC pipes that Westover students will paint to replicate the candy-cane stacks.

Aging gracefully In a district where enrollment is climbing, officials looking to replace old space can make a simple and persuasive argument: We have more students, we need more classrooms.

"It's easier to build a new school if you're growing," says Barry Ballou, business manager, Hastings Public Schools, Neb.

But Hastings is not growing-its student enrollment of 3,500 is about 1,000 less than it was 30 years ago. So rather than try to persuade the community to abandon school buildings that have become an integral part of the city and build new facilities, Hastings decided to maintain its neighborhood schools and re-invest in its old buildings, which range in age from nearly 20 years to more than 80.

"The neighborhood concept is really important to our clientele," says Ballou.

The district has upgraded heating and air-conditioning systems, and installed new boilers and energy-efficient lighting in its buildings. Though several of the buildings are old, the upgrades will allow the solidly constructed schools to last another 25 years.

"It's a cliche, but they don't build buildings like this anymore," says Ballou.

As part of the building upgrades, Hastings signed a performance contract that guarantees significant energy savings over seven years.

"We've already reached 75 percent of our savings in three-and-a-half years, so we should meet the goal ahead of time," says Ballou.

Keeping older schools open means accepting some compromises, Ballou acknowledges.

The original wing of Hastings Middle School was built in 1917. A north wing was added in 1927, and the building served as a senior and junior high until 1955, when a new high school opened. It converted to the middle school team-teaching philosophy in 1994.

"The layout is not optimum for team-teaching," says Ballou. "We can't get into some of the walls easily, so we have some piping and plumbing along the walls. Our playgrounds are undersized by modern standards. The school sites are typically five acres instead of 10."

Taking care of the old

With enrollment climbing by 1,400 students a year, the Conroe Independent School District, Texas, has focused on building new schools to accommodate its growth. It has waged three successful bond elections in 1992, 1994 and 1998, and 14 of the district's 40 schools have opened since 1990.

But at the same time the 33,000-student district north of Houston has worked hard to make sure that its older buildings are taken care of, even if they are no longer being used as traditional K-12 school buildings.

"There's been a strong commitment to maintain our older buildings," says Charlie Patterson, Conroe's deputy superintendent for operations.

That commitment stems from the wishes of district residents.

"We felt like the community wanted us to keep these buildings in use," says Patterson. "We heard that as we did our community-wide presentations."

The district's oldest building, the former Travis Junior High, was built in 1926. It served for more than 30 years as a senior high and in 1963 was converted to a high school. Conroe closed Travis as a junior high in 1995 when it built a new school with much greater capacity.

"The Travis site was landlocked," says Patterson. "There wasn't any way to add on to the building, and it was an area of high growth."

District officials felt the building was still usable, so when the new school opened, they moved the district's alternative high school to the Travis site.

"We went in and retrofitted," says Patterson. "There is new air conditioning, flooring, asbestos abatement-a lot of cosmetic improvements."

New construction three years ago gave Conroe the flexibility to close Crockett Intermediate School. The building opened more than 60 years ago as a junior high, and since the 1970s has housed grades 5 and 6.

Again, the district determined that, while it would close the building as a student attendance center, Crockett still could serve a purpose.

"We've been using it as an auxiliary facility for administration," says Patterson. "The district police department is there, and we have our staff development there."

In the meantime, Conroe still has the building in reserve.

"We know that the way our growth is going, at some point in the future, the school will be reopened," says Patterson. "We would go in and totally renovate the interior so that it would be comparable to our other elementaries."

Conroe also has emphasized maintaining and renovating older buildings that still serve as school sites. Sam Houston Elementary, built in 1936 like Crockett, houses grades K-4. With additions and upgrades, the district expects to be educating students there for years to come.

"We've built an addition to fit in with the old-style architecture of the original building," says Patterson. "It's been totally upgraded and wired for technology."

Tough choices

Half of the 62 schools in the Des Moines School District are more than 75 years old, and three-quarters are 50 years old or more, says associate superintendent Pat Moran. So the need for renovations and repairs was evident when voters in Polk County, Iowa, were asked in March to approve a one-cent sales tax for school improvements.

When voters narrowly defeated the plan, Des Moines school officials had some distressing numbers staring them in the face. The tax would have created a $30-million-a-year fund to renovate Des Moines' 62 school buildings, many of which desperately needed upgrades. Without the new revenue, the district had no way to pay for nearly $276 million in repairs (see sidebar), and another $152 million in additions and air-conditioning upgrades.

So, the district adopted a controversial plan to cut expenses and sock away money for renovations and new construction. It decided to close three of its oldest elementary schools and reshuffle some other programs and administrative space.

"It's always a difficult decision to close schools," says Moran. "As in all decisions of this kind, it was guided by an assessment of how effectively and efficiently we can deliver education to children."

Des Moines was able to find other classroom space for children displaced by the closings because it had held onto school buildings that had themselves been closed years earlier. Two of the schools the district closed are Lucas and Brooks elementary schools, both more than 80 years old. A consultant's report said that Lucas needed $3 million in repairs and Brooks $2 million.

"They reached a stage in their life cycles where it was very costly to keep them up, let alone put in the technology we want to put into place," says Moran.

The students who attended Lucas and Brooks will be bused to a former junior-high school that had been housing an alternative high school.

The third elementary school closed, Rice Elementary, was nearly 90 years old and in need of $2.8 million in repairs. Its students will be moved to the former Samuelson Elementary School. Samuelson had closed several years ago because of low enrollment. The district had been leasing out part of the building and using other sections as a preschool and a teacher-training center, but the Rice students and staff will need the entire building.

Juggling dollars

The money Des Moines saves from closing the schools will be put in reserve with the eventual goal of building a new elementary building to serve the students that had attended Lucas and Brooks.

When the money is available, Des Moines also hopes to provide Rice students with new facilities. The district plans to replace the current Monroe Elementary School with a larger school that will house both the Monroe and Rice student bodies. The closings will net the district savings of about $700,000 a year.

"We're going to capture the savings and let it accumulate until there is enough to build a new school," says Moran. "It may take a number of years."

The alternative high school displaced by Lucas and Brooks-Scavo-will be merged with the district's other alternative school, Casady, and moved to Des Moines' central campus.

The central campus is a former auto-manufacturing plant that the district converted to a technical high school in the 1950s. Since it closed as a high school in the 1980s, the campus has housed vocational and advanced courses, and district administration.

To make room for the alternative program at the central campus, administrative staff, which has been downsized as part of the district's cutbacks, will move to the former alternative school site at Casady.

Des Moines' incremental savings plan for renovations would not be needed if the district received funds some other way. Moran says it may urge the county to reconsider the sales-tax proposal, which failed by only 40 votes out of more than 66,000 cast.

The difficulty with that approach is that, because the sales tax is a countywide proposal, the Des Moines district isn't the only one with a say. While Des Moines would receive more than half the tax revenue generated by a one-cent sales tax, voters from all 16 districts in Polk County would be able to cast ballots. Even if a majority of voters in the Des Moines district approved the tax, it would not win approval unless it received a majority countywide.

In the meantime, Moran says the district has no specific plans for the school buildings that have closed. In the past schools that have been shut down have become community centers or have been torn down to clear space for parks.

When classes recessed for the summer in Mississippi's Vicksburg Warren School District, half of the district's 10 elementary schools closed their doors for good.

While many in the district mourn the loss of the old buildings, Vicksburg has two large elementary schools ready to open in the fall to take their place. The new buildings not only allow the district to move students out of five aging schools, but also they have given it the flexibility to create an elementary-school choice plan that achieves the racial balance required by a desegregation decree.

"We needed the new schools," says assistant superintendent Jimmie Mullins.

Two schools in one

The district describes each of the new buildings as two schools in one. In fact, each building has been given two names. The first will be known as Sherman Avenue Elementary and Warren Central Intermediate; the second will be called Dana Road Elementary and Vicksburg Intermediate.

The elementary sections will house grades K-4 and will be among six K-4 schools in the district. The two new intermediate sections will house nearly all of Vicksburg Warren's fifth and sixth graders. (An elementary magnet school, Bowmar, houses grades K through 6.)

Closing will be Culkin, Grove Street, Bovina, Hall's Ferry and Cedars elementary schools. The buildings ranged in age from 40 to 60 years.

"All of them have an emotional attachment," says Mullins. "But the schools were old. We had wires going everywhere."

The new buildings have been constructed with technology in mind, and have modern school design that didn't exist when the older schools were built.

"They just look better," says Mullins. "They have music and art rooms that were designed to be music and art rooms. The grades are set up in pods with work areas for the teachers."

The elementary and intermediate grades are separated and share only common facilities, such as cafeterias.

The six remaining K-4 schools are divided into North and South zones, three per zone, each with a different academic theme: math and science, writing and communications skills, or traditional. One intermediate school serves each zone.

Families deciding where their children will attend identify their first, second and third choices, and their preferences will be granted in keeping with the district's desired racial balance. Each of the schools' projected enrollments for the fall is 56 to 58 percent African-American, and 42 to 44 percent white and other.

"A lot of the parents wanted their kids to stay in the school they were at," says Mullins. "Eighty-four percent of the students got to go to their first choice."

Future still undecided

The fate of the old schools has not been determined. Mullins says someone has expressed interest in buying the Hall's Ferry and Cedars sites.

Cedars was being leased by Head Start until five years ago, when the district closed another elementary, Jett, and sold it to one of the several casino developers that have set up operations along the Mississippi River in Vicksburg. If the district keeps the Cedars site, it may use the school for storage.

The Grove Street school building is situated in downtown Vicksburg's historic district, and community members have urged officials to continue using the building.

"We're going to have a parents' center there and make it a center for our alternative-education program," says Mullins. "It will be kind of a community center."

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