Why are districts across the US closing schools?

Increasingly necessary, these moves are always difficult and always unpopular
By: | November 6, 2019
Due to declining enrollment, administrators are pursuing school closings and starting the school consolidation process.gettyimages.com: Jetta Productions

School closings continue to be a fact of life for districts across the U.S., as changing demographics force administrators to make unpopular decisions about shuttering underused buildings or starting the school consolidation process due to declining enrollment.

“While the closures of schools isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s a regional problem that has been taking place for years and that will continue for quite some time due to a decline in the U.S. birthrate and, in turn, the student population,” Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, tells District Administration

School closings in California’s Oakland USD, for instance, will take place over the next three years despite escalating protests that have led to district police erecting barricades, reported EdSource. Last February, the teachers’ union led a seven-day strike in response to the alleged use of police force. 

Oakland USD parents whose children attend school in an affluent neighborhood began protesting when the school board voted to merge that school with one in a lower-income area, EdSource reported.

In Texas, Austin ISD is currently focusing on closing four elementary schools, though a total of 12 schools could face the same fate, KXAN reported.

Austin ISD plans to start the school consolidation process for three of the four campuses due to declining enrollment. The combined resources could support underserved black and Hispanic elementary students, and possibly attract future students, KXAN reported earlier. Austin ISD could repurpose the fourth school into a building that supports the district’s social justice center.

In Wisconsin, the Green Bay Area Public School District will merge an elementary school that has the lowest enrollment with another school that has enough empty classrooms to take every student, reported Fox 11 News.

Green Bay could save up to $500,000 with the consolidation and will use the empty building for Head Start students.

School closings can address ethnic imbalances

When facing the likelihood of closures, administrators need to set up a committee of community members, parents and district staff to communicate the situation as early as possible.

“Nobody wants to see their school close so there will be opposition and protests,” says Domenech, who dealt with declining student populations for 20 years as superintendent of various New York districts. “As you reorganize and reset school boundaries, ask committee members how they would like to use the savings that will inevitably be accrued from closing a facility.”

For example, the committee can vote to create much-needed programs such as early childhood centers or full-day kindergarten programs.

“The committee can also take advantage of opportunities to create ethnic and economic balances within a community,” says Domenech. “If you are closing a school in a low-income area, you can redistribute those students in schools that have greater resources and better facilities.”