Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life

In October, 2011, The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report called Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts, which looked at the process of school building closure in a number of urban districts to help inform the process of closure and repurposing of a potentially large number of buildings in Philadelphia. The process in Philadelphia was expected to take at least two years to complete.

And now a follow-up report has been released that looks at the reality of what happened in Philadelphia and a number of other cities after their “surplus” buildings were closed.  Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life looks at the realities of finding new uses for old school buildings in Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Tulsa and Washington as well as Philadelphia (where, over two years later, as many as 37 buildings still remain to be closed before they can even reach the “repurposing” stage).

Among the key findings:

  • School districts are not typically set up to become real estate brokers, resulting in slow and problematic transactions;
  • Many buildings remain unsold due to multiple difficulties including neighborhood resistance to change of use, the economic downturn, and size and age of buildings;
  • Unsold/unleased buildings remain a drain on districts’ finances due to security and maintenance costs until they are either repurposed or sold.

Some good news for the charter sector: of the buildings sold or leased in the cities under study, more than 40 percent went to charter schools. There is brief mention in the piece on recent developments in Cincinnati (the court challenge which resulted in the district’s deed restrictions against charter reuse of buildings being ruled unconstitutional) and Cleveland (the mayor’s transformation plan calls for stronger district-charter partnerships). It is to be hoped that these and other efforts across the state will result in an increase in charter school reuse of existing school buildings, which would appear from this report to be a win for all parties.

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