Facility Planning: Closed!

May 1, 2007
The pain of dealing with underused facilities.

It's happening again in many districts: another round of closings. School systems cannot afford to operate and maintain too much unused space. Board members take sides at tumultuous meetings, and residents react with anger, but should the closings take anyone by surprise? Consider:

  • A district has classrooms for 50,000 students, and the enrollment is forecast to dip below 30,000 by 2011. Eighteen schools were closed in 1982 and 13 in 2004. Enrollment continues to decline from its peak of 65,000 students in 1972. During this period, new schools have been built, which are operating below capacity. This district now has 600 to 900 extra classrooms. A classroom-usage survey discovered just 78 were unused — programs had expanded to fill the space. The board recently voted to close six schools; the closings deal with just one-third of the classroom surplus.

  • Another district voted to close 34 schools and may close eight more the following year. Thirty schools were closed in 2005. With the new closings, the system will have 64 empty public schools. Newspaper reports say this district has as many schools today for 119,000 students as it did 10 years ago for more than 180,000 students.

School closures force reorganization, including changes in class sizes, boundaries, curricula, programs and grade structures. It is important to involve an educational planner or architect to analyze existing classroom usage. Be prepared, plan ahead, avoid surprises and communicate with the community.

Because many schools have several additions to an original building, consider demolishing just a portion of a school. Some rehabilitation of the remainder and some new construction may be required. This may appear to be an unreasonable solution economically, but might answer a public demand to keep a school in a specific neighborhood.

Excessive empty space and underused buildings sap critical funds needed elsewhere. Empty buildings may become an eyesore and a target of vandals. If a district cannot find an alternative use, it eventually will have to pay for demolition of the facility.

Think hard about building new schools when enrollment is declining — unless facilities are worn out. Schools constructed in recent years can operate more efficiently compared with schools built 50 to 100 years ago.

Budget deficits may force a district to increase class sizes, which can lead to more empty classrooms. Some districts are losing kids to charter schools with small class sizes. Districts need to find a way to decrease class sizes to compete with charter schools that have 15 to 20 students per class.

Avoid surprises, disharmonies and angry residents. Districts need a comprehensive facilities inventory that chronicles physical and educational inadequacies. Prioritize potential candidates for closing should the need arise. Instead of closing many buildings at one time, consider closing one school per year, and evaluate annually.

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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