Since the announcement of Equity 2020 a little over a year ago, trying to follow the school consolidation and building closure process feels a bit like Waiting for Godot: there is a lot of conversation but, ultimately, not much action.
Recent Hartford Board of Education committee discussions on Hartford’s school facilities issues are only the most recent proof-point highlighting the continuing and rising costs of building maintenance and operations, especially in the under-enrolled schools, which inefficiently divert dollars from the students who need the most support.
The Case for Consolidation and Closure Is Clear
The case for taking action is clear and can be made in a thousand different ways. In committee and regular meetings, District officials and Board members have trained spotlights on several interesting cost effectiveness questions that need to be addressed as the budget gets further squeezed this spring and into the foreseeable future. Here are a few:
- Building Upkeep During Transitions. To prevent further problems, including the threat of vandalism, the District still has to heat and maintain the vacant Clark School, even though it is closed, no longer a candidate for renovation, and subject to being turned over to the City. Nearly $1 million was spent to investigate and deal with the school’s original PCBs problem, which could not be resolved. Even though the District stores and re-purposes water heaters and other components from transitioning schools for other buildings (as it has done with the kitchen equipment at the phasing-out Culinary Academy at Weaver), empty-Clark upkeep and maintenance remains an $800,000 item.
- Needed Improvements. The District has a March 31 deadline for renewal of its State Alliance Grant for building improvements and will seek $2 million for neighborhood school improvements that really could use twice that amount of support. As an example, the Olympic-sized swimming pool at Hartford Public High School recently had its circulator pumps fail and flood the perimeter of the pool as well as a basement room over a three-day weekend. The pump repair was $10,000 and the cost of dealing with the flooding will likely be 17 times that.
- Deferred Action Is Risky Business. District building improvement funds have been frozen for four years – and repairs (like those at HPHS) spring sudden emergency costs that cannot be avoided. The Martin Luther King, Jr., School (the original Weaver High School) was recommended for closure nine years ago. A plan to renovate it fell apart in the City budget crisis, when the City could not match a 20 percent share of the $64 million approved by the State. An independent facilities study has identified $30 million of needed work at M.L. King; band aids won’t address problems like these.
- Dithering Costs Money. The District recently noted that a withdrawal of a school redesign plan has a ripple effect on architectural and construction costs as well as curriculum redesign, to the tune of $2 million associated with the second round of the Weaver renovation. That redesign is now headed for a third round – and the school system, the Board, and the community are going to have to get it right this time.
Redesigning Equity 2020
But as the Equity 2020 process revealed, the students who need the most support can also be harmed by the school consolidation and building closure process itself. When HPS restarts the revamped Equity 2020 process – which it must do soon – the process must look very, very different than before.
Guidance for what this process should look like comes from a number of sources, including reports and articles on successful (and unsuccessful) school closures in comparable cities across the nation. Best practices learned from these cities could help prevent another Equity 2020 debacle.
A revamped Equity 2020 process must integrate these six elements:
- Be bold, goal-oriented and transparent, with
- Expert support using best practices and with
- Meaningful community input to improve the original plan, that
- Guides coordinated and aligned action, that
- Optimizes asset/liability management, and that ultimately …
- Transforms educational experience.
Meaningful community engagement is key. Take this lesson learned from an urban planning consultant hired to support very successful closure and consolidation in Kansas City as compared to failures from Chicago’s efforts taken from an in-depth analysis in the Chicago Reporter. Kansas City’s urban planner consultant shared key learnings from the process:
“…[U]pdating the repurposing effort’s website remained a priority. There, residents and community groups can find minutes from meetings and site tours, as well as documents that provide information about each school site, compile community feedback and explain the reuse strategy for each school. Community meetings are posted weeks in advance on the website, as well as on the initiative’s Facebook page.”
Compare this against a less successful effort in Chicago:
“On the other hand… “Chicago’s process was opaque. Each alderman involved and informed community members as he or she saw fit; many didn’t hold meetings at all. There was no central point of contact for residents, and repurposing meetings were posted sporadically, making it difficult for communities to plan ahead. Chicago Public Schools didn’t keep records of the meetings, and the district’s repurposing website lacks any documents about proposals for the schools.”
Successful engagement in Hartford must go beyond hosting a couple of presentation-style meetings. Hartford education and community leaders charged with a reconstituted Equity 2020 process must cultivate meaningful community input to improve the original plan. This might include hosting multiple community needs-assessment and feedback meetings along with public tours to inform the creation of the plan (prior to any presentation of a “draft” that looks more like a final version awaiting a rubber stamp).
Following the collective design of a plan (with real community input), there would be open and public discussions of the proposal with an eye toward going beyond saving money to also measurably improve (and where necessary) transform the education experience. Stated plainly, the newly consolidated schools must be better than the current neglected ones and money saved in the closure and repurposing of buildings must be reinvested in long-neglected communities and high-needs areas. Our children deserve nothing less.
Furthermore, we can’t wait. The problem is not getting easier; it’s getting harder – and will get even more difficult still – the longer Hartford sits on its collective hands waiting for action. From a 2011 national report on school consolidation and building closures:
“Selling or leasing surplus school buildings, many of which are located in declining neighborhoods, tends to be extremely difficult. No district has reaped anything like a windfall from such transactions. As of the summer of 2011, at least 200 school properties stood vacant in the six cities studied – including 92 in Detroit alone – with most having been empty for several years. If left unused for long, the buildings can become eyesores that cast a pall over neighborhoods and attract vandalism and other illicit activity.”
According to a 2013 report, Pew found more than 300 unused properties for sale in just a dozen city school districts. The Chicago Reporter article notes:
“The 2013 Pew study reported: ‘Officials dealing with surplus buildings say that districts should move aggressively to sell or lease facilities soon after they become empty, make information readily accessible to prospective buyers and the public… and, when possible, get outside help in determining appropriate uses of the properties and how they fit with the overall needs of the city. Kansas City followed that blueprint to a T; Chicago did not.”
Click here to access the 2017 Chicago Report article “In Kansas City, a lesson in transforming closed schools”, the 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report “Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia”, and the 2013 Pew Charitable Trusts report “Shuttered Public Schools”.
The Bottom Line
A national model, Kansas City enacted a policy of repurposing and re-using buildings, while consolidating and transforming schools. Notably, City and school leaders came together to design creative financing and reuse solutions to ensure neglected and vacant schools become resources for the community again.
This point bears some emphasis in Hartford: The District and City already have failed impacted communities. Significant efforts should be made to ensure that the failures resulting from building closure should not further deplete resources for the impacted community.
A principle of “repurpose and re-use” is that vacant schools become resources for the community again. Such a principle is fully consistent with the mayor’s laudable efforts to bring in a staff expert to combat blight on a comprehensive city-wide level. This is the type of vision Hartford must have for a revamped Equity 2020 process to consolidate schools and close buildings. This is the type of vision and leadership Hartford’s future and current education leaders must bring to the table.