Tuesday, May 14, 2013

School Vacancies

I had the pleasure of attending a school board meeting in March where I saw a pivotal decision take place. The school board members voted to sell the Northrup Building in Northeast Minneapolis to Hiawatha Leadership Academies.

The decision provoked my further attention-- this issue is occurring in many places around the United States. New York City, Philadelphia, and even the rural community of Walnut Grove, MN. School districts, like Minneapolis Public Schools, are in a worrisome financial situation. Federal, state, and local jurisdictions have significantly reduced funding to public education, yet the districts are under constant pressures to raise student achievement. With these new pressures, many school districts have resorted to shutting down or selling selected school facilities to reduce the fiscal strain.

But, how much money can they actually save?

There has not been one end number that quantifies the magnitude of expenditures freed up; however, most mid-sized school district with 20,000 students is estimated to have a asset portfolio of several billion dollars. Philadelphia, through selling vacant properties, is hoping to free up 11 million dollars. There is potential to be capitalized upon.

The American Association of Administrators estimates that 18% of school expenditures are dedicated to operations. Although school building maintenance is not the largest school expenditure, it does require a large portion of state and local funding. Perhaps hiring a few competent staff members to more strategically manage the physical asset portfolio could help to re-allocate dollars where they could be more beneficial.

School districts are in a tough position. The delicate balance of public property, school children, and economic prosperity are all within grasp of a few powerful personalities. Vacant public school property may just be the tip of the iceberg in the much larger financial crisis of public education. Strategy needs to be initiated in the allocation of public dollars. The efficiency, equity, adequacy, and feasibility all need to be carefully considered. Planners and policy makers should consider the value of public property and decipher the advantages/disadvantages to maintaining or selling public school buildings.  Cases like the Northrup Building in Minneapolis are not going away. 

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