Facility Planning: Making Room

Too much space, too few students and taxpayers are paying for empty space. The result? Another round of school closings. That means the remaining schools will have larger enrollments and in most cases, larger class sizes. At the same time, a debate drags on regarding school size — is smaller better?

In the 1980s, a study by the American Institute of Architects, Committee on Architecture for Education generated several guidelines and suggestions on how to decide whether to close a school facility:

  • Have an educational planner or architect provide a professional analysis.

  • Appoint a citizen's advisory committee to develop an overview of the needs, and bring in professionals to help develop answers.

  • Create a close working relationship among the school, city and community.

  • Provide opportunities for the public to offer ideas and expertise. This can bring about the emotional climate needed to elicit community support.

  • Communicate the issues, options and solutions, and be good listeners.

If it weren't for budget pressures, declining enrollment wouldn't be much of an issue. However, given the economic realities, administrators should focus on long-range space planning. Consider these issues:

  • Closing an old school building can benefit a district. Newly constructed facilities are a better fit with current educational philosophies, teaching and learning activities, delivery methodologies, security and technology. Also, new facilities are more economical to operate and maintain.

  • Administrators should determine whether demolition or adaptive reuse is the answer for neighborhood icons that have been around for 75 to 125 years. Some are marvelous works of architecture and could be candidates for the historic registry.

  • Look at alternative spaces.

  • Consider different ways of addressing a temporary enrollment bulge, so a district can avoid being saddled with empty classrooms once the enrollment bulge is gone. Why not consider building a school in a commercial, light-industrial area that eventually could be sold for reuse as an office, manufacturing building or warehouse in the future?

Many creative ways exist to use surplus space and buildings. Consider renting the building or empty classrooms to an adjacent district or a charter school, or seek out businesses or other governmental agencies as tenants.

As the movement for smaller schools and smaller class sizes clashes with budgetary problems that lead to closed facilities and larger enrollments, administrators are being pulled in opposite directions. Administrators need to be prepared to cope with enrollment fluctuations.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

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