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Pew study of 12 districts finds that closed schools are most often reused as charters

By Dale Mezzacappa on Feb 11, 2013 06:02 PM
Photo: Nathaniel Hamilton/NewsWorks

Rudolph S. Walton Elementary School closed in 2003. Last November, the sale of the building to KIPP Philadelphia Charter School and MIS Capital LLC was approved.

More than 40 percent of shuttered school buildings in 12 cities were ultimately reused as charter schools, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study of 12 big cities that have undergone substantial downsizing of their traditional districts.

The reasons, according to the report: the suitability of the buildings to school use, public policy that encourages charter growth, the availability of tax-exempt bonds, and the availability of funding from private foundations.

"Economic pressures felt by various districts have made the transfer of properties to charters increasingly appealing, particularly in situations in which other potential occupants have not emerged," the report said.

The report notes, however, that there is still disagreement over whether this is a good thing.

"The flow of students to charters can further reduce enrollment in district-run schools, exacerbating the situation" of vacant school buildings, it concludes.

Emily Dowdall, one of the authors of the report, said in an interview that "the question of how to treat charters as prospective tenants or buyers of former public schools is one of the biggest issues facing districts trying to find new uses."

On the one hand, she said, charters are often the most likely buyers for buildings that frequently don't attract many takers. "From the perspective of a district wanting to get a building off its hands and neighbors who don't want an empty building in their community, charters are appealing," Dowdall said. "But on the other hand, there is concern out there that selling or leasing to charter schools can end up exacerbating the very problem that the districts are trying to solve, which is having too many seats."

In Chicago, the report said, the school district has imposed a restriction that no vacant school building can be used for K-12 educational purposes for 40 years. Until now, almost all the surplus school buildings for which uses have been found are leased to charters.

The school board can grant exceptions, Dowdall said. "But this still represents a huge shift. The district heretofore has used leases to charter schools to fill surplus buildings, and now they're taking a major step away from that," she said.

Since 2005, Philadelphia has sold 10 schools, according to the report. Three of them are now charters, four were converted to housing, one combines a shopping center and senior housing, and one has not yet been repurposed. But it has failed to sell six other recently vacated properties.

The District is now seeking to close 37 additional schools, which is "an order of magnitude more than what we've had to deal with," said Dowdall. And although it is hard to predict when the District may start seeing real savings from selling these properties, based on Pew's research, "it's going to be difficult to find new uses for all of these buildings," she said.

Said the report: "With the inventory of surplus properties certain to grow in many cities, the challenge of finding new uses for old buildings is a daunting one." 

Vacated schools are most often in deteriorating neighborhoods that have little commercial potential, are too big for most uses, and are very expensive -- and controversial -- to demolish.

Some districts are better than others regarding how aggressively they go about repurposing the buildings, the report found. But there emerged no single ideal formula -- using brokers vs. not using them, leasing vs. selling, for example. Other variables include the degree of cooperation with other government agencies and the method and intensity of community involvement.

"No matter how well a district goes about it, the process of repurposing surplus property remains inherently difficult -- politically, financially, logistically and emotionally," the report said. "As our research shows, there are plenty of success stories, and lots of buildings and parcels still empty."

Philadelphia, she said, unlike other cities including Detroit, has yet to provide one online site where people can go for an inventory of what is for sale. She also said that the District's current approach to selling the buildings -- first asking for a "request for qualifications," and then a "request for proposal," may turn off some buyers.

Other cities, including Cincinnati, have found some success through auctions, which can result in faster sales but less control over the buildings' ultimate uses.

The 12 cities studied, including Philadelphia, have collectively sold, leased or reused 267 properties but are still carrying 327 unused sites, Pew found.

The cities besides Philadelphia are Detroit, Washington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Tulsa and Kansas City, Mo.


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Comments (16)

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on February 11, 2013 8:29 pm
Is anybody shocked by this?? Of course, connect the dots, it ain't hard. Not only will schools reopen under "Charters" but then, mysteriously, the District won't charge rent etc. even AFTER, the cover is blown. Can you say, Kenny Gamble ??
Submitted by Darnel (not verified) on February 11, 2013 8:54 pm
Food for thought. If the School District is giving away buildings because they are too decrepit and require too much rehab then why are charters so eager to take over those buildings? Sounds fishy. My guess is that Hite and SDP are just playing the old shell game of condemn a school turn it over to political pals and getting rid of hard working UNION labor in the process.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on February 11, 2013 10:28 pm
I have a question for readers about the windows in some of these buildings. Does anyone know why so many SDP buildings have windows like the ones at Walton, which are opaque on the top and have the regular glass on the bottom? Is there a particular name for these type of windows? They seem to be particularly common on schools that Lewis Catharine designed (e.g., Overbrook HS, Vaux HS, Old West Philly HS, Beeber MS, etc.). The regulations in Chicago are interesting, that is, not allowing closed schools to be used for K-12 purposes for 40 years. Who pushed that initiative in Chicago?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2013 12:53 am
Hmmm... I've enjoyed your posts, but seriously you need to ask that question? You have to watch out confirming some stereotypes of too smart Penn kids with no common sense. Who do you think would push an initiative barring the use of old schools by any entity daring to compete with the public schools? What sort of self-interested group would require buildings be left vacant and rotting than let some competition get any value out of them? Deploy literally scorched earth tactics that add blight to already struggling neighborhoods. Your final hint: "It's all about the kids."
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on February 12, 2013 8:31 pm
Anonymous, Excuse me? You are making assumptions that are completely outrageous. My post is very straightforward. Let me explain why I need to ask the question about the building situation in Chicago. I couldn't find much online about why their school board or school district enacted the provision that vacant Chicago Public Schools buildings could not be used for K-12 purposes for 40 years. I thought that someone who reads the Notebook might be able to direct me in the right direction for finding answers. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 11, 2013 11:27 pm
Hard working union labor needs to be busted. Unions are in the way of success...good riddance. Its over for them.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 12, 2013 8:06 am
"Mandatory reorganization" of schools perpetually (to all appearances) in "correctional status" is something that SDP has never been able (is it the collective bargaining agreements, or just lack of bureaucratic spine?) been able to do. So instead, charters are created and/or charter management organizations brought in to do this, and the reorganization is brought about through "choice". There are problems, one being the unequal distribution of resources (better involved families are finding better run schools), but essentially these schools are finally being "mandatorily reorganized". There should be no objection to charters occupying former traditional school buildings. For some cities then there would appear to be a problem outside of charters, seeing that only "more than 40%" (less than half?) of these buildings are reoccupied by charters. Are families with school age children not finding living in the city advantageous? Also, all the cities listed are predominantly Democratic, with the exception of Cincinnati, and possibly Kansas City (Independent mayor). Are these problems because they want someone else to take the initiative, that they feel it's big government's problem?
Submitted by Teachernphilly (not verified) on February 12, 2013 9:37 am
In regards to the windows question: The very long windows used to require 2 sets of shades, or one very expensive extra long shade. They were mounted 8-10 feet off the ground, making them a hassle to use. When the district began replacing windows city-wide in the 1990's, they started using the blacked out top pane and a plexiglass lower pane. Now there is only one shade mounted in the classroom at a much lower level in relation to the floor. There is no such thing as a dumb question, there is only dumb people afraid to ask them. Some charter schools are excellent and work wonders with kids. Some do an average job, and some are just awful. There is no evidence that charter schools are the silver bullet that will “save” public education, or that they do a better job of educating students that traditional public schools. As for the "charterizing" of public education, it is about one thing: money. You have to follow the money trail. Who gains financially? Who gains politically? What accountability exists when charter schools fail? NCLB encourages the states to redirect education funding to commercial companies and nonprofits (I would argue the use of that term in this scenario) that want to run charter schools. They can circumvent union rules and customary management practices while operating outside the influence of school boards and state authorities. While this approach to education reform provides some benefits (School Choice, Freedom from Bureaucracy), it is also full of misconceptions and opportunities for fraud. Most studies and analysis of the charter school initiative shows that there is nothing magical about them when it comes to rebuilding our failing public education systems.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 12, 2013 10:00 am
Yes to all your points. Make charters more accountable, and follow the money trail ALSO in the SDP too (much harder to do because it is hidden under "expertise" and "eduspeak"). Let's see, Dr. Pavel had more than 100k in sold back vacation time. Our Instructional Reform Facilitator took all our school's Title I funds for many years, now taxpayers are shouldering her retirement. The salary for the Grants office head is over 100k ... to get handouts, I guess we need the best... No amount of ideological argument changes human nature. So corruption possibilities aren't enough of a case against charters.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on February 13, 2013 11:41 pm
Thank you for the information about the windows.
Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on February 14, 2013 3:47 am
Here's another example of "reform" helping corporations. Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtII) (replaces CSAP), requires teachers to do a tremendous amount of on-line paper work. We were told 80% - 85% of students will be "serviced" by in class or teacher created interventions. 15% - 20% of students must be serviced with "in the box" (or purchased) interventions. For reading this might include Achieve 3000, Read 180, Corrective Reading, etc. (Math is not in place this year). Therefore, schools have to purchase and implement the purchased interventions. The purchases have to come out of school budgets. This ensures companies will continue to get contracts.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2013 9:54 am
SDP schools could be well run too. WE need stronger Principals who are not afraid to stand their ground against parents, the district, teachers, or students. I left an Empowerment school for a school that I thought would be better, it's not. The school I am currently at was a top-tier district school and now its at the bottom of the heap in less than 3 years because of the Principal. The SDP schools that are viable options for families are viable, because they are safe, make AYP and have many programs to offer. These schools are either adequately funded or the principals are very good at managing money, they have staff "buy-in" and there is consistency on the part of the administrator. Schools that people want to go to will not stand for students who cannot function in the classroom, they will not allow ANYONE including students get in the way of education. The SDP needs to take a good look at how the schools that people want to go to are run. What is the Principal and staff doing that is working, why is it working? What are their non-negotiable standards for students that allow for teachers to teach and students to learn.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2013 10:08 am
We need "better principals" not stronger principals. We need effective leaders. Autocratic, assertive and bullying principals are the worst principals. We don't need people who "stand up" to parents, teachers and district leaders. We need principals who understand how to collaborate and "work with" all stakeholders. The "myth of the strong principal" has got to end. It is a destructive mentality. What we need to do is learn the qualities of "effective leadership." And just for the record, the schools with the highest test scores are the ones who are considered high performing. The schools with students that score high on tests are those which select their students based on ability, behavior, and attendance history. They also deselect difficult students. But I agree we do need some more "good principals."
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 12, 2013 10:29 am
No amount of ideological argument builds bureaucratic "spine".
Submitted by garth (not verified) on February 12, 2013 12:30 pm
There's so few controls, financial or otherwise, on charters, that I find it alarming. It's not a good trend to be losing public schools each year. The SRC will just keep turning over school buildings each year to charter operators, but don't they know or care that it's not helping the school district at all. The SRC acts like it has no impact on the remaining public schools, but I think it has to be better analyzed and evaluated.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 13, 2013 1:15 am
There are a drawbacks about splitting resources by using charters that this article hints at. It is likely that charters aren't able to find as much funding as tradtional public schools for capital resources (buildings) through nontaxable bonds and private foundations, and that is the reason more of these closed buildings are not reused by them. Fundamentally it is more precarious for schools to have to rely on the private sector for resources. What other choices for real change are there really? What controls are in place at the SDP? The SRC (historically) has not guaranteed fiscal responsibility, let alone accountability. Despite all the protest about using test scores to evaluate schools, in the end bad test scores were dismissed as the fault of the families and their poverty, or "handcuffing" by 440, and no real changes were made. How does having a few highly paid administrators at 440 differ from the caricature of a profiteering private organization? I think an opportunity was lost in tossing the idea of "achievement networks". Instead of the suspect nonprofits, there could've been a selection/bidding process for the management of these. Wouldn't that have been more public/democratic than having the SRC choose a superintendent, and having him/her hire management personnel? I think charters are being used as a convenient scapegoat right now. I agree that they need to be held to the same standards as the traditional public schools, and this shouldn't be impossible. I find it very telling that the endpoint of all this protest against charters is to get more money - no accounting for the huge amount being spent right now, but to get more nevertheless. And this from those who say it's a crime to make education "a business".

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