Facilities problems lost amid school closings controversy

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Andrew Broy, Illinois Network of Charter Schools

Photo courtesy of INCS

Andrew Broy, Illinois Network of Charter Schools

Chicago has a school facilities problem.  Among its more than 600 public school buildings, 224 are enrolled at less than 50% capacity, according to the legislative task force established to examine the issue.  Many of these schools produce abysmal achievement results, and now CPS is attempting to manage its building inventory by taking certain school actions, including closing two underperforming, and under-enrolled, high schools, Crane and Dyett. 

These actions have generated a backlash among communities who feel excluded from the school action process.

We have seen this movie before. When the School Board votes on these actions at its February 22 meeting, it will only serve to highlight how much more needs to be done. That’s because any realistic appraisal of the scale of the facilities problem is lost amid the controversy over school closings. The problem will only get more difficult to solve the longer it is deferred.   

Most of Chicago’s schools were built when housing patterns and population densities were dramatically different, but the school system has never adjusted to our new reality. Unlike state and federal laws that require legislative bodies to reapportion seats and redraw districts every 10 years in response to demographic and other changes, there is no such requirement for school systems.  As a result, school districts are notoriously slow to adjust to demographic change until their balance sheets are bleeding red.  That is exactly where Chicago finds itself today, a result of compounded inaction over many, many years.   

Crucial decisions have been deferred

This challenge is the predictable result of years of policies that have never adjusted CPS’ capital inventory to the shifting reality of where students live. Consider the results from the 2010 census. Over the past decade, the city has lost more than 200,000 residents, a decline of 7% overall. This trend goes back generations and has led to a steady decline in school enrollment over that time.  Over the past 10 years, Chicago has lost approximately 40,000 students.  To put this number in context, the second-largest school district in Illinois, Elgin, has a total of 42,000 students. During this same 10-year period, Chicago has opened more than 100 new schools of various types. Many of these schools are performing admirably and serving students well, but they also serve to highlight the fact that Chicago is losing students while adding building capacity—hardly a recipe for maximizing efficiency when the district’s budget is stretched thin.

In the wake of this problem, one proposed solution is to close more buildings and consolidate enrollment among a smaller number of facilities. Given the fact that Chicago has dozens of K-8 grammar schools built for 1,000 students that currently enroll 100 or 200 or 300 students, this idea certainly seems appealing. 

But this approach ignores a basic reality: Although there are hundreds of underutilized school buildings in Chicago, they tend to be in neighborhoods where students no longer live.  A quick review of the census data reveals that population losses have been concentrated in certain areas of the city, mostly on the South and West sides, though a swath of census tracts on the far North Side also lost substantial population.  Because of these realities, CPS should adjust its facilities approach geographically so it is tailored to these changes. While closing buildings will produce some efficiency, it does nothing to relieve the overcrowding that exists in other neighborhoods.  The overcrowding problem is particularly acute in heavily Latino neighborhoods, predominantly on the Northwest and Southwest sides of our city.  These neighborhoods have too few buildings to accommodate the current student population. 

Those of us in the charter school sector frequently underestimate the scale of this challenge. While charter schools certainly have a right to advocate for access to public school buildings, something we at Illinois Network of Charter Schools have done, it is rarely that simple.  Every decision to close a school necessarily involves reassigning current students to other schools. In addition, school performance is not distributed evenly throughout the city, so even if CPS decided to be more aggressive in consolidating schools, finding better ones – the core goal of any consolidation program – would be difficult.  Meanwhile, approximately 60% of charter schools are located in private buildings, forcing them to divert scarce operational dollars to pay for facilities.

Budget doesn’t address facilities problem

Since the budget reflects the district’s priorities, it is always helpful to begin with the budget when discussing policy challenges. CPS currently spends $5.9 billion to educate the district’s 402,681 students, a figure that includes operational and capital expenses. Of this $5.9 billion, $790 million is dedicated to facilities expenses. Thus, CPS spends approximately $2,000 per pupil per year on facilities costs. The 2012 budget is notable in another respect: The FY12 budget is an overall reduction from last year, representing a departure in practice from the previous 10 years during which expenditures steadily increased (although the operating budget has increased from last year).  In 2005, the district’s operating budget, excluding facilities, was $4.2 billion.  By 2011, in an era of limited inflation, the operating budget was $5.6 billion, an increase of 25%.  During that same period, enrollment fell by more than 18,000 students.  Reflecting the same dynamic at play in the facilities arena, the district has done less with more. 

The budget takes a few tentative steps to reverse this trend, but it does little to address the core facilities problem.  A review of the district’s facilities plan reveals attempts to catch up with deferred maintenance and a footprint that is still too large for the current enrollment. To a degree unique among educational policy issues, facilities decisions are really financial decisions. By that measure, CPS’ current facilities choices merely delay the structural decisions that are ultimately needed. 

One only has to look at the current CPS facilities allocations to appreciate the challenge. The current allocation includes $96 million for Jones College Prep, an appropriation that would take the total cost of that high school to $120 million. CPS also plans to spend up to $75 million renovating Chicago Vocational and Career Academy, a high school with over 1,000 students.  Despite the substantial expenditure, CVCA is still substantially underenrolled. Given the current condition of CVCA and the fact that its roof and building envelope are apparently a safety hazard, such expenditures certainly seem necessary, but they avoid the more difficult question:  In an era of shrinking capital expenditures, where should the district spend its money for maximum benefit?  On an aging school built in 1940 that once housed more than 4,000 students but now has approximately 1,400?  Or on new facilities or strategic renovations more aligned with population density and project growth?  Add to this question the fact that CPS has 56 currently operational school buildings that were built before 1900 and it doesn’t take long to conclude that the district needs to take action on facilities sooner rather than later.

A Way Forward

In face of these challenges, what should be done?  First, the district should examine all current school facilities with three features in mind:  (1) current capacity; (2) condition of the building; and (3) academic performance. Using these three categories as a guide, it is not difficult to build a matrix to guide facilities decisions. For schools that are substantially under capacity and academically failing, the decision to consolidate, transform, or close depends substantially on the buidling’s condition.  Such a school in sound condition is an obvious target for restructuring of some sort.  Such a school in terrible condition, by contrast, would require substantial investments that might be better spent elsewhere.  Likewise, a school that is academically succeeding and underenrolled is an obvious target to accept students in a consolidation or realignment.

Second, the district should decide where new buildings need to be built to relieve overcrowding and should find efficient means to build those buildings.  The days of $120 million high schools will necessarily come to a close. School buildings are still substantially more expensive than comparable buildings in the same geographic area, suggesting inefficiencies in the building process.  There are great examples of adaptive reuse in Chicago where older buildings are renovated at a total cost of $10,000 per student.  Under that model, one can establish a 1,000 student high school with a 30+-year projected life span for a total cost of $10 million. In fact, it has already been done in Chicago.

Ultimately, a holistic school facilities solution is possible that includes consolidation, phasing in new school options, and expanding school facilities in targeted neighborhoods. This will free up additional operational dollars that can be directed to effective programs.  We should use new school options, including high-quality charter schools, co-location arrangements, and similar models to reduce overcrowding and provide an incentive to school operators to locate in areas where the need is greatest. 

Andrew Broy is president of the non-profit Illinois Network of Charter Schools.