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Close Calls

Close Calls

When schools shut down, administrators must decide how to use these landmarks.

As student enrollment drops, school districts need less learning space and fewer facilities. With cuts in funding, budgets cannot sustain existing building operations and program costs, and buildings must be taken offline or repurposed for financial efficiency. How does a community address this issue?

Big decisions

Whether a district is having to shutter numerous buildings or only one facility, the process requires time and planning, and most often involves a community task force to provide guidance. One district created a discovery team, which focused on fact-finding, and a facility-use task force, which focused on recommendations. Each group included parent/citizen members supported by staff. The school board set direction and criteria, and the committee made recommendations. In this effort, the district used an architectural firm to help provide technical information about the buildings. As the committee became more engaged, information was provided and disseminated to the community through websites, public meetings and letters.

Overall, in deciding what to do with facilities, districts are seeking solutions that keep disruptions to a minimum, honor school and community history, and address demographic, financial and instructional realities. Institutions also face the additional task of establishing stable attendance areas and responding to the political realities that accompany change.

What next?

The future of a building that is targeted for closure varies greatly depending on community needs. One school district with more than 40,000 students has numerous programs using leased sites, so its first goal is to move those programs into closed schools.

Closed elementary schools in that district will be repurposed to house a district early-childhood program, and a special-education program for students with emotional behavioral disorders who previously were educated outside the district. A sixth-grade center will be converted for use as an arts specialty school. The district is considering selling its administrative headquarters, which is situated in a prime commercial area, and moving its administration to one of the closed middle schools.

In another example, a Christian private school recently determined that it must unify its two campuses into one facility. The school’s north campus will serve as a pre-K to 12 school, and its south campus will be leased to operators of a Hmong charter school. What initially was a burden turned into cash flow for the Christian school.

Timing is key

What is the timeframe from initial discussion to final action to close or repurpose buildings? Many institutions move quickly over a matter of months to close a school or building and then plan no further, and others work through a long-range facilities master-planning effort that may look five years ahead.

Some states require public hearings prior to a building closure. Once a school board decides to proceed, the process of redistributing boundaries for new attendance areas begins, and public hearings on the boundary changes usually are necessary. After that process is complete, the mechanics of staffing changes, computer systems, parent notifications and mailings commence.

One suburban school district developed a long-range facilities plan in 1999 and outlined its future demographics enrollment projections, mobility locations and boundary plans. It was determined that its one-section elementary schools were not affordable to operate, were situated in the areas of declining enrollment, and would be nearly empty in five years. Although time-specific dates were not determined, it was apparent that action was needed over a five-year period to address the building capacity issues.

In 2001, the district closed an elementary school and now leases it to a charter school. In 2003, a second school was repurposed into a district early-childhood facility. In 2007, a third elementary school was closed and has yet to be sold or repurposed. In 2008, the long-range facilities plan was updated, and a two-section elementary school was closed, leased and sold this year to a special-education intermediate public school district. The district developed a long-range facilities master plan that paved the way for making logical and timely decisions on a yearly basis.

Getting others involved

At what point should other entities get involved in the repurposing process? During the early planning stages, solicit participation from potentially affected cities. Keeping local government informed regarding the decisionmaking process is important because new ideas may generate from a citywide planning and development perspective. After the public has participated in and been informed about plans for school closures and repurposing, and the institution has a conceptual direction, accepting ideas from interested private parties could lead to new discussions for facilities repurposing. Education institutions have made arrangements with health clubs, private developers, charter and private schools, community organizations, park and recreation departments, and private businesses for repurposing and converting closed schools into new uses.

One school district closed its elementary school, and the city converted the building into a community center. The building had a swimming pool, gymnasium, large-group meeting areas, classrooms and ancillary spaces that met the needs for a community center venue at minimal renovation cost.

Costs to repurpose

If buildings are repurposed for district use, what renovations or remodeling are needed? Repurposing schools for students, especially of a similar age, can be relatively minor, and most districts are in a pinch to repurpose at minimal cost. When developing specialty programs in schools, such as sciences or the arts, more extensive remodeling may be necessary because of the program emphasis. Repurposing for a different function, from a middle school to a district headquarters for example, requires more extensive renovations, such as code upgrades to be applied for business occupancy, smaller spaces for offices, and revised ventilation requirements to operate.

Other conversions may require extensive renovation because of building age, structural issues or other conditions. When this happens, the institution may need to revisit its original intent, and it may be more fiscally prudent to explore demolition or property sale. When a school district spends taxpayer dollars to repurpose a school it just closed, it must be ready to justify the expenditure and repurposing. Community scrutiny and skepticism will be high.

If the school closure and repurposing process includes open communication and community involvement, instititions can weather the potential difficulties successfully and be well-balanced for operating efficiently for the future.

Sidebar: An urban example

An urban city school district in the upper Midwest has experienced dramatic enrollment decline, and numerous school properties are for sale or being considered for redevelopment. The district has hired a commercial real-estate agency to craft options for repurposing the buildings or properties. Several of the smaller sites are being considered for senior cooperative housing; the existing buildings would be demolished and multiple units would be built on each site.

On another school property, the real-estate agency has issued a request for proposal to sell or lease and turn the existing school building into a community asset; the district is open to any concept proposal. For several other properties, the district is exploring demolishing buildings and creating open green space for the community. This approach is less expensive because the existing schools are in bad shape and costly to heat. A few school properties sit adjacent to churches that are interested in acquiring the property for expansion. Several school buildings are under lease by charter schools.

Not all properties are up for immediate sale or repurposing because the priority is to develop a strategic facilities plan for the district; the district is evaluating which properties to keep. For example, one building may be razed and a new district headquarters would be constructed to take advantage of its more central location. Also, commercial redevelopment is being considered in selected areas in the city, so the school district is making school properties available in those areas and hopes to partner in the city’s master-plan development.

Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis, a multi-disciplined firm specializing in pre-K to 12 and post-secondary school planning and design. He can be reached at [email protected].

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