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.