Excess capacity; Is the only solution to close buildings?

According to the State of Ohio, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District has too much building space per student. The Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) has set a square-footage-per-student to objectively measure educational effectiveness across districts.

The OSFC recommends 120 square feet per student for elementary schools, 145 for middle schools and 160 for high schools. CH-UH has 438,343 square feet in its elementary schools, 356,507 in its middle schools and 395,400 in its high school for a total of 1,190,250 square feet. That’s 453,450 square feet more than the state recommends.

According to Steve Shergalis, director of school facilities for CH-UH, it costs about $10 per square foot per year for the district to operate its facilities. So excess capacity results in higher cost per pupil.

Although the district has already closed several buildings—most recently Coventry Elementary in 2007—this data suggests the district should close even more.

To emphasize this conclusion, enrollment for the district is expected to decline, from 5,953 students in the 2009-10 school year to 5,514 in 2014-15. The state says buildings should serve at least 350 students, and it won’t contribute to costs for renovation or replacement for buildings that serve fewer.

By 2014-15, CH-UH is projected to have three buildings that fall below that standard: Oxford, with 347; Boulevard, with 327; and Gearity, with 267.

Clearly the analysis of the school facilities committee–a group of community volunteers that the district has charged with making recommendations to the school board on future facilities needs–must result in a recommendation to close buildings, right?

Perhaps, but as citizens near schools that have closed can attest, shutting a school has tremendous cost to the neighborhood. A vacant building attracts vandalism and crime; students who once walked to school must now ride a bus. Some parents choose to pull students out of district schools, some leave the neighborhood, others never move in.

Projections of declining enrollment become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Are building closures inevitable or are there other potential solutions to the problem of excess capacity? Could spaces in the buildings be repurposed for other uses? Can we turn around the declining enrollment trend? Here are a few ideas:

1.  Add preschool to every elementary building in the district. Currently, the district houses its only preschool in one building, Gearity, the building that needs the biggest enrollment boost. Although the program is award-winning and the cost is reasonable, many parents find its location too distant to be a convenient preschool option. Several high-quality preschools exist within convenient commuting distance for parents. Many are located within private schools. Once parents commit to sending their child to a private preschool, the public school option for future schooling becomes more difficult to envision. Having a high-quality preschool program within each elementary school will enable parents to become more familiar with the district and more comfortable with its programs, which should lead to higher kindergarten enrollment.

2.  Renovate existing buildings so that the front entrances are welcoming and easy to find. I’ve lived near Roxboro Elementary School for 16 years now and never knew where its front door was until a short time ago when I attended a meeting there; it is located at the back of the building, near the parking lot, convenient for teachers and administrators, perhaps, but not for parents and community members. During the last renovation that the district undertook in the 1970s, it reoriented the entrances of all buildings to the parking lot. Doing so turned its back on the community and made the buildings seem unwelcoming. In fact, as one drives down Lee Road, the most prominent view of Fairfax Elementary School is of its dumpster.

3.  Partner with community organizations to find new uses for underutilized portions of buildings. Have a Family Connections site within each elementary school; start getting parents familiar with the district’s facilities as soon as they have children. Enable the public to use the high school’s swimming pool (the district can check off this one). Have satellite public library branches in all of the schools, and invite the public to use them. Allow more community groups to use the auditoriums for performances and use the libraries for meeting space. Allow summer camps and after-school activities to use the cafeterias, gymnasiums and playgrounds. When buildings are renovated, structure potential community-use areas so that they are easily accessible to the public, while keeping classrooms and offices off limits.

4.  Consider grade reconfiguration. Today, CH-UH students attend one of seven elementary schools for grades K-5 grade, one of three middle schools for 6-8, and the high school for 9-12. Perhaps elementary buildings could hold pre-K-4, middle schools 5-6, junior highs 7-9, and the high school 10-12.

5.  Consider single-sex schools or magnet schools. Some parents leave the district, especially during the mid  dle-school years, for single-sex private schools that allow students to concentrate on studies, rather than socializing. The district could offer one all-girls, one all-boys and one co-ed middle school. Other parents choose a particular educational philosophy, such as the Montessori method, or leave for more rigorous studies in particular subject areas, such as science. Why not give parents these options within the district?

These are just a few of my ideas. The district and the school facilities committee need to hear from you. Take an opportunity to visit your neighborhood elementary, attend a performance at the high school. See the buildings first hand. Then, tell us what you think.

Deanna Bremer Fisher is the executive director of FutureHeights and a member of the school facilities committee. Her opinions do not reflect the position of FutureHeights or the Heights Observer.

Read More on Opinion
Volume 4, Issue 3, Posted 12:21 AM, 02.07.2011