Deserted schools with peeling paint and boarded up windows dot Oklahoma City.
It's a common sight in urban school districts nationwide, and researchers predict it's only going to get worse.
“The challenge of finding a function for these buildings is daunting,” said Emily Dowdall, senior associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Oklahoma City School Board decided this week to sell one of nine surplus schools — Gateway Academy, 721 W Britton Road.
The district stopped using the building in the late 1990s, Chief Operations Officer Jim Burkey said. It leased the school for a few years to Eagle Ridge Institute, a youth development program.
The Oklahoma City School Board recently pushed district staffers to sell surplus properties. The board also asked that bidders disclose their intentions for the land and buildings.
The board had four offers for the former Gateway Academy and chose a $110,000 bid from JAB Consulting, which reportedly will turn the property into a learning center for tutoring, professional development and testing. The other options were for the school to be a nonprofit community center, a vocational training center or a retail site.
This was the second time the district tried to sell the property. A 2011 deal fell through.
Large-scale school closings are becoming more common nationwide, Dowdall said. Just last month, officials at Chicago Public Schools announced plans to close more than 50 schools this summer.
Two forces are working against public school enrollment today, Dowdall said.
• The population of school-age children is declining at a faster rate than the overall population as the nation ages.
• Charter schools are becoming more popular.
“These trends, combined with tighter budgets, are forcing districts to act,” Dowdall said.
The study looked at more than 250 properties in a dozen cities during a seven-year period, Dowdall said.
Who is buying?
Most properties sold for between $200,000 and $1 million. Some districts give property away or sell it for $1; others are required to bring in fair-market value.
The most common sales were to charter schools, but other common uses are government offices, nonprofit programs and housing, particularly for seniors.
“While there were some success stories, there are still hundreds of buildings that are empty,” Dowdall said, “and there are going to be many more down the line.”
For Kansas City Public Schools, a drop in enrollment has resulted in a glut of surplus schools, said Shannon Jaax, director of the Kansas City Public Schools Repurposing Initiative.
“We have more closed buildings than open schools that are serving our children,” Jaax said.
In Kansas City, Mo., enrollment dropped from a high of 70,000 students to fewer than 17,000 today.
Oklahoma City had 75,000 students in the 1960s. The district has nearly 40,000 students in non-charter schools now, about as many as in the 1930s.
But school buildings are sacred ground in some communities, Jaax said. Finding the right purpose and the right buyer can challenge school district officials, who aren't trained to be real estate agents or landlords.
“School buildings are really seen as community assets in almost every single community,” she said. ... As we looked at what we were going to do with these school buildings once they were closed, we knew that we wanted to take the approach that even if we weren't going to be able to serve students within them, we still wanted them to serve as community assets.”
In Oklahoma City, buyers can be few and far between, Burkey said. Even simply tearing down the building can be expensive because of lead and asbestos in outdated schools.
“The condition of our buildings probably would defray an awful lot of prospective people,” Burkey said.