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Exterior of Walton elementary school.

Photo: Nathaniel Hamilton/NewsWorks

Nathaniel Hamilton / NewsWorks

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

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

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.