The Consequences of School Closings

Tuesday, April 9, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

Whether it’s 54 in Chicago or 3 in Brevard County, Florida, the idea of closing schools permanently makes a lot of stakeholders uneasy. Unfortunately, school closings are also a reflection of the state of our school systems, which have been the subject of shrinking budgets and tax revenues for the better part of a decade now.

Obviously the main byproduct of school closings is displacement of the students and staff. It’s estimated that 1,000 teachers and staff will be out of work in Chicago. But there are some other unintended – or unavoidable – consequences that aren’t realized until the closings take place.

New fronts in gang warfare

School districts rarely, if ever, consult local law enforcement before closing schools and redrawing boundaries. In urban districts, this might be a good idea. Because closed schools tend to be in less desirable neighborhoods, some of them may come with established gang cultures. Moving those students to a new school could create a volatile situation if a rival gang calls the school their “turf”. In districts with vibrant immigrant neighborhoods, redrawing boundaries can also cause ethnic strife.

Blighted real estate

Closed schools obviously also mean vacant buildings or land. As already mentioned, these buildings tend not to be in the most desirable areas. They also tend to be older buildings with existing maintenance issues. There are also some complicated legal issues to explore when/if a school district wants to sell a former school. If the district is lucky, a charter school will want to come in and lease the building. If not, the situation is a recipe for a useless abandoned building that could take years or decades to repurpose, dragging down property values with it.

Environmental impact

Geometry states that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but school buses rarely travel in straight lines and now that some students have further to travel for school, those lines are longer as well. With school buses travelling an average of four billion miles each year nationwide, every little bit helps. Districts close schools to save money, even if that means some of all school bus routes become longer. What isn’t being saved is environmental impact from the increased bus traffic. It’s a delicate balance, one in which Mother Nature is often cast on the short side.

Community disenfranchisement

If some school boundaries are lost, it’s logical to assume that the new zones will be larger as a result. In a lot of communities, the local schools serve as an anchor to the neighborhood. If the local school is now the anchor for more neighborhoods, it takes a while (if ever) for that sense of camaraderie to gel. In the new zone, some students and parents might not have a lot in common with the newcomers. The school can help by focusing on community “getting to know you” events early in the new school year. As we know, parental involvement is key to student success, so you want to make sure everyone feels welcome in the new situation.