Leaders forced to close more schools by 2 big concerns

Wichita Public Schools in Kansas will close six schools to cover a $42 million budget shortfall as San Francisco's superintendent declares "We must have fewer schools than we do now."

Closing schools is one of the toughest moves a superintendent and school board can make. But more leaders are choosing to shutter buildings in districts where budgets are tightening as the surpluses of ESSER expire and enrollment continues to decline.

Most leaders are aware that districts in some parts of the country were losing significant numbers of students even before the pandemic turned attendance upside down. A resurgent school choice movement in Republican-controlled states is also drawing students away from public schools as K12 budgets face the so-called “ESSER fiscal cliff” later this year.

Wichita Public Schools in Kansas this week voted to cover ia $42 million budget shortfall by shuttering two middle schools and four elementary schools. The decision to close schools focuses financial resources on fewer buildings, reduces the district’s maintenance backlog and eliminates the need to fill some vacancies, Wichita’s school board said in a statement.

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The closures will also allow the district to maintain mental health support programs and “reasonable class sizes,” fill open positions with certified teachers and maintain family engagement efforts. “No current employee is expected to lose their job in this process,” the board added.

The district has used ESSER funds to prevent major spending cuts when enrollment dropped during the height of COVID in 2020 and then did not rebound as the pandemic ebbed.

San Francisco USD in California is preparing for closures as enrollment continues to slide, the district struggles to fill vacant teaching positions and more of its buildings fall into disrepair. “To the create school our children deserve and our families expect, we must have fewer schools than we do now,” Superintendent Matt Wayne says in a video about the district’s “Resource Alignment Initiative.”

The district has lost about 10,000 students since 2015, ABC 7 San Francisco reported, but Wayne did not say which or how many schools might close. “We’ve included external equity checks to ensure no community or student group is proportionately affected,” Wayne adds in the video. “Make no mistake, this initiative will affect the entire district. Every school will experience some level of change.”

In just the last half of 2023, Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan decided to close 10 schools over the next five years and San Antonio ISD in Texas approved a plan for closing 15% of its buildings.

One of the nation’s largest districts, Broward County Public Schools may add dozens more buildings to the list of five schools it had been preparing to close or consolidate. At a recent school board meeting, one board member contended the district is “about 40 schools oversized,” WLRN reported.

Smaller districts that have voted so far this winter to close buildings include Minot Public Schools in North Dakota and Franklin County Public Schools in Virginia, according to local reports.

But enrollment and funding were not the chief reasons given this week when Bridgeport Public Schools in Connecticut announced leaders’ intentions to close six buildings. The schools “pose safety risks and drain taxpayers’ funds [and] … have long struggled to meet basic educational standards,” the district said in a statement titled “Rising Together.”

But how much money do school closures actually save?

When schools are under-enrolled, closing one of every 15 schools saves a district about 4% of its budget—mostly in labor costs, according to an analysis from the Edunonics Lab think tank published this week by EdSource. However, just as in some of the closures detailed above, layoffs do not always accompany school closures.

So how do leaders save money when they’re not cutting staff? Attrition, the Edunomic Lab report contends. “Often, the district can move staff from the closing school to fill vacancies emerging in other schools as staff leave on their own (thus avoiding layoffs),” authors Marguerite Roza and Aashish Dhammani write. When a principal retires in one school, the district may move a principal from the closing school over to fill that spot.

“The cost reduction comes from not rehiring to fill those vacancies.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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