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No quick bonanza from school closings

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Closing and consolidating schools won’t provide much immediate help to the School District in dealing with its enormous budget gap.

Eventually, by downsizing its physical plant and better coordinating programs, the District should be able to reduce its operating budget. Potential areas for savings include utilities, building maintenance, administrative costs, and student transportation. Capital spending can be focused on fewer buildings and costly ones jettisoned.

But even if the District were able to get rid of one-third of its buildings, it would not reduce its $3 billion operating budget by anywhere near one-third. The District’s empty classrooms already cost much less than full ones because they don’t require a teacher.

In any event, the District says its goal isn’t simply to cut costs, but to redirect savings from vacant seats to full classrooms.

Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said the District’s planning process aims both to "rationalize" and "to make sure you can reinvest any money that might be saved into the educational product." But officials said they had no formula for determining how much they might save.

The District should be able to sell surplus school buildings, especially well-constructed older ones that are suitable for housing. More recent buildings less suitable for conversion could be sold to charter schools.

Again, however, officials say they are not going through this process to bail out the District’s finances.

"I want to really dispel this notion that the District’s first thing, because of the budget circumstances, is to say let’s flip this into cash," Nunery said. "Quite frankly, the sales cycle on buildings like this is really long, so you don’t get a whole lot of immediate benefit. And the dollar amount you get is not as significant as everybody thinks."