Texas public schools are facing what could be $10 billion less in state financing — a stark prospect that could empty school buildings across the state as districts consolidate campuses to reduce costs. One proposal under consideration by the Austin Independent School District, the state’s fourth largest, suggests closing eight elementary schools and one middle school.
What should happen to these structures, which are built with taxpayer money?
It is a dilemma that the state, with its fast-growing population, has not had to confront before on a large scale. Tom Murphy, a fellow with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that studies land-use issues, said he had seen old schools converted into a variety of uses, including bars, loft apartments and retail buildings.
In particular, he said, elementary schools can provide good homes for active older people because the buildings are often laid out across one story with few steps. “On the surface, there’s no bad use except one that would conflict with existing neighborhood uses,” he said.
Of course, these new uses assume that a district is willing and able to sell vacant buildings. Joe F. Smith, a former superintendent who runs texasisd.com, a clearinghouse of news and information for school officials, said districts often decided to keep empty buildings because they were not sure if they would need them again. Districts have also converted schools into storage facilities and administrative offices.
Perhaps the most eager potential tenants are charter schools. David Dunn, who directs the Texas Charter Schools Association, said charters had a “huge” need for suitable facilities. But Dunn said it had been “a struggle” to get districts to accept charter schools as potential lessees.
The Texas Education Agency does not keep records on how many buildings stand vacant in the state’s 1,237 districts.
Partnerships between charters and traditional public schools have a prominent supporter: State Sen. Florence Shapiro, Republican of Plano and head of the Senate Education Committee, who calls leasing empty school buildings to charters a “win-win” that saves taxpayers money and provides revenue to public schools.
The reluctance among public school districts to lease to charter schools can be traced to a fundamental philosophical tension, Smith said.
Charter schools take students away from public schools “so when you do move charter schools in there, you are giving away some of your students and giving away your revenue,” he said, adding that districts also worry about the “financial footing” of charters looking to move into unused buildings.
But some districts, like San Antonio’s, have managed to broker acceptable agreements with charter schools for unused space. The Henry Ford Academy’s Alameda School for Art and Design is housed in a San Antonio ISD building in exchange for assuming upkeep costs and, in an innovative twist, allowing the district access to its $4 million art and design curriculum.
Rivalry was not an issue, a district spokeswoman said, because the academy is a small, specialized school and the district felt it would benefit from the curriculum it provided.
Then there is always one last option. With many of the Edgewood district’s 100-year old buildings, district spokesman Maclovio Perez said, the cost of repairs often means there is not much left to do with them except “basically blow them up” and sell the land.