You can't dispose of public schools at a garage sale
The school building boom in Cleveland Heights took root in 1904 when the newly incorporated village of about 1,000 residents built Lee Road School on the site of the current Boulevard Elementary School.
As the orchards and farmland of this new village started to sprout streets full of apartment buildings and one- and two-family houses, the need for more schools grew. In 1914 a high school was built next to Lee Road School. By 1960, when the population of Cleveland Heights peaked at 61,813, the school district, which by then included University Heights and a strip of South Euclid, operated 10 elementary schools, four junior high schools, the current high school at Cedar and Lee Roads and an administration building.
The 2010 census put the Cleveland Heights population at 46,121, a 25-percent drop over fifty years—the effect of shrinking household size, the freeway system and the exurban development it made possible, white flight and regional population loss. In response to this, the school district now operates four fewer buildings, and a new comprehensive facilities plan calls for closing three more during the next decade and reducing the size of those that remain.
The CH-UH Board of Education is to be commended for facing the reality that our school population does not merit operating all the buildings we have. Over the last three years, the board has led a look forward into uncertainty with the goal of developing a comprehensive use and rehabilitation plan for the schools that will serve us for the next 50 years. They have grappled with how to best meet our educational needs and have put forth a viable plan that needs community support.
The plan leaves unsolved an important challenge: What do we do with a treasure trove of excess publicly owned space?
I like to get rid of stuff I don’t use any more. My goal is to keep it out of the landfill. The best option is to find someone who will make good use of it. Garage sales, Easter Seals, and tree lawn scavengers are valued outlets for shedding the outdated parts of my life.
When it comes to public property, though, we need to do more than shed the surplus. We need inspired solutions.
Our school buildings and the land they occupy express our interrelatedness, our commitment to the value of every citizen and our hopes for the future. Because our public property is acquired with public funds to serve the public good, we need to approach its disposition in a way that honors its special value.
Like every other first-ring community in our region, we need to address this stubborn trend. The wisdom of the planning community is needed to help us frame the criteria for deciding what kinds of disposition make sense and for identifying the purposes that could be served if we use our imaginations. The board has the authority to decide what to do, but it should not be left to figure out the choices on its own.
We have to get comfortable with some different ways of thinking: that growth is not the only measure of health, that the right use in the future is better than the wrong use now, that the community—not the real estate market or special interests—should determine fair price and appropriate use, that a public purpose is desirable and could take new forms.
I don’t know what we should do, but I do know it can’t be just another real estate transaction. Our closed buildings are expensive to maintain, but that does not mean we should turn them over for any purpose for however much someone is willing to pay for them.
We need a plan. We need creative thinking, thoughtful policies, and public involvement. We need to set standards and to be patient. We must remember that what gives these properties special value is that they belong to all of us. We need more than a garage sale solution that would assign a reduced value to what were once productive and essential community resources.
The decisions we make about this precious resource should fulfill a thoughtful vision of our future. Without this kind of thoughtful approach, the decisions will be based on cutting our losses rather than enhancing our community.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.