Closing underutilized schools is still a good idea

A penny saved is a penny earned, right? Not according to the Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative, which just released a study throwing cold water on the idea that closing underutilized schools can save money in strapped district budgets. The authors conclude that "the money saved as the result of closing schools, at least in the short run, has been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets."

The experience of the cities studied doesn't bear that out, however. Looking at Milwaukee, DC, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Kansas City, closing under-enrolled schools saved nearly 4% of the district's total budget annually on average (based on 2011-12 budget totals). In Kansas City, the savings cited in the report, $30 million, amount to almost 10% of the total annual budget. In DC, the $16.7 million savings translates into roughly 185 teaching jobs every year.

The report is useful in its consideration of the political and operational challenges faced by districts with buildings that are below capacity and draining budgets. Superintendents should certainly not oversell the potential savings from right-sizing. But even in the efficiency-blind world of K-12 budgets in urban districts, tens of millions of dollars represent real money and building closures are a worthy strategy to consider.

? Chris Tessone

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