Urban school facilities can be very challenging because they have undergone extensive change during the last 60 years. It began in the 1950s when urban school districts and first-ring suburbs experienced major growth. This was followed by the impact of desegregation in the 1960s and a rapid decline in enrollment in the 1970s related to lower birthrates and migration to the suburbs. To add to the challenges, urban school facilities were neglected due to lack of resources in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fortunately, there was renewed interest in urban school facilities in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. However, monetary resources are not keeping up, so facilities have suffered again. A lack of cohesive federal and state policies to address schools and cities adds to the problem. This has resulted in less than desirable results compared to other cities in developed counties.
Today there is a potpourri of “public” schools operating within urban school districts, including typical PK-12 neighborhood schools; magnet, thematic and choice schools; and a wide variety of charter schools that are operated by the school district or independently. This fragmented scenario creates new challenges and opportunities for facility planners and the facilities divisions in urban public school systems.
Fifteen years ago, while teaching in Harvard’s Executive Education Program, I shared with participants that I felt urban school districts would eventually become a loose-knit confederation of independent schools. This arrangement would significantly change the approach to public education and decrease the bureaucracy in school districts because each school would implement its own school board and decision-making process.
Today, evidence suggests we are definitely moving in this direction. New Orleans, post Katrina, is a great example as the school system is building schools and leasing them to charter organizations. This is a new way of delivering educational services, and it’s working because academic achievement is rising.
However, in cities nationwide, it is not uncommon to find:
• Public school districts that build a replacement school or renovate an existing school but suffer enrollment loss when a charter school opens across the street.
• Charter schools that scramble to find facilities and can’t open on time.
• Charter schools that operate in inadequate facilities — sometimes in buildings that were discarded by the public school system.
• Large public school facilities that previously served 2,000 or more students and now operate at 50 percent capacity.
• Urban schools that continue to be plagued by deferred maintenance issues.
• Large numbers of closed school buildings that are unoccupied.
The time has come to rethink how we address urban school facilities. Historically, they have been operated and managed by school districts; however, times are changing. The typical public neighborhood school is no longer the only game in town. In fact, as already pointed out, it is not the only game within the public school system itself.
An alternative approach would be to create a non-profit real-estate organization that manages all educational facility assets in a city. This organization would assume responsibility for developing new facilities, renovating existing buildings, and maintaining buildings. It would also be responsible for creating more efficient use of assets by leasing facilities to educational organizations, including the public school system, and disposing of excess assets.
This new, non-profit real-estate venture would be set up independently from the local school district. It would work with the local school district as well as other public schools, such as charter schools, and possibly other non-public institutions. It would have the expertise to facilitate and broker arrangements.
This might be similar to a leaseback program. Schools would decide how much space they need and lease only what is necessary. For example, it would be inefficient for a school to serve 500 students in 200,000 square feet of space because that equates to 400 square feet per student. If the school chose to lease 100,000 square feet of space, the non-profit real-estate organization would find compatible tenants and make building modifications to utilize the facility more efficiently.
There are already situations in which more than one school shares the same building. But schools aren’t the only compatible tenants. Colleges and universities, social services organizations, non-profit community organizations, and even private companies are symbiotic possibilities.
New construction also presents opportunities to develop shared sites and shared buildings. For instance, a building could house a hospital and include a floor for a thematic health magnet school. A university campus could include a high school, an IT center could include a technology charter school, and an art museum or performing arts center could include a school for the performing arts. There are many possibilities.
Urban school district facility departments are not equipped to effectively dispose of excess property. In fact, traditional real-estate organizations and private developers are not equipped either. Closing a school is a dramatic community event, but what is worse is when school buildings sit idle or decay. Furthermore, too many school districts are paying upkeep and utilities on closed schools.
Closed school buildings are often looked at as a problem, but they also provide new opportunities. If the right type of organization collaborates with the community, governmental organizations, financial institutions and private developers, many of these eyesores and discounted assets can be turned into something that has positive economic and social impacts. In some cases, closed urban schools are sitting on prime redevelopment sites for hospitals or office buildings. In other cases it may make more sense to raze a building and use the grounds for a park or community garden. This requires proactive approaches that the current system is not equipped to handle.
The urban educational landscape is changing. As facility experts, we should get out in front of this and figure out a better way to deliver and manage these assets.
William S. DeJong, Ph.D., REFP, is senior advisor at DeJong-Richter and DeJong-Healy. DeJong co-founded Schools for the Children of the World.