Pew Study: Philadelphia and Other Big Cities Struggling to Find Productive Uses for Closed Schools

  • February 11, 2013

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School districts in Philadelphia and big cities across much of America are struggling to find productive new uses for hundreds of school buildings closed due to declines in enrollment and school-age population, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report, Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life, examines the school disposition process in Philadelphia and 11 other cities that have significant inventories of decommissioned schools: Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Tulsa and Washington.  As of the end of 2012, the 12 districts had sold, leased or otherwise reused 267 properties since 2005 and still have 301 unused sites on the market. Inventories will grow in the months ahead, with Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington considering large-scale closures.

“The challenge of finding new functions for old buildings is a daunting one for school districts, because typically they're just not set up to buy and sell real estate,” said Emily Dowdall, senior associate for Pew's Philadelphia research initiative. “But letting vacant schools sit idle poses significant problems. An empty building can cast a pall over a neighborhood, attract illegal activities, and be costly to seal, maintain and insure.”

The study finds that the most common reuse of the surplus properties is as charter schools, which have been growing in popularity. Yet there is disagreement among districts—and within districts—over whether this is desirable. Charters are obvious candidates to use the buildings and often have access to the resources needed to acquire them. But the flow of students to charters can further reduce enrollment in district-run schools, helping create more empty buildings in the future.

Other uses include housing, both market-rate and subsidized, as well as higher education, homeless shelters, churches, community centers, and offices.

There are a number of factors that make the buildings hard to sell, including the conditions of the structures, many of which are old, large and decaying; layouts not conducive to new uses; and locations in residential areas suffering from depopulation and decline. Sale prices for shuttered schools often come in well below initial projections. And the act of selling a vacant school building, even at a low price, does not guarantee successful reuse, only a change of ownership.

In 2012, Philadelphia had 12 properties on the market and sold six of them, with prices ranging from one dollar to $6 million. Another six, shut down last year, have yet to be put up for sale, and many more are likely to be added to the list after March, when the School Reform Commission votes on Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s proposal to shutter 37 buildings, nearly 15 percent of the city's district-run schools.

The study finds that districts are likely to get the best results when they move aggressively to sell or lease facilities soon after they become empty, make information readily accessible to prospective buyers and the public, take steps to ensure that purchasers follow through on announced plans and promises, and, when possible, get outside help in determining appropriate uses of the properties and how they fit with the overall needs of the city.

Accompanying the study on Pew's website is a video that tells the story, from community members' perspectives, of two closed school buildings.  Access the video and full report at www.pewtrusts.org/schools.

The study is a follow up to Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts, a 2011 Pew study on the process that results in school closures.

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The Pew Charitable Trusts is a nonprofit organization that applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.

Pew's Philadelphia research initiative provides timely, impartial research and analysis on key issues facing Philadelphia for the benefit of the city's citizens and leaders. For more information, visit www.pewtrusts.org/philaresearch.