St. Louis Public Schools Saving School Buildings for a Rainy Day
Yesterday, the Senate Education Committee conducted a hearing on House Bill 42. Brittany Wagner and I submitted testimony with suggestions for improving the bill. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the hearing. For some reason, college professors are actually expected to regularly attend class. Go figure. Still, I was able to keep up on some of the deliberations via Twitter. One tweet in particular caught my attention.
Alex Stuckey, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, tweeted:
Officials with St. Louis Public Schools said they need to hold buildings back in case enrollment increases #motransfers #moleg
— Alex Stuckey (@alexdstuckey) March 11, 2015
This was in regards to a portion of the bill that requires districts to sell their vacant school buildings at fair-market value to charter schools. Here is what Brittany and I said in our testimony about the abandoned building provision:
While charter schools continue to grow in Missouri’s urban cities, HB 42 addresses the acquisition of real estate by charter schools from public schools. Overall, these schools are outperforming their traditional public school counterparts. Charter schools are doing well despite receiving less funds than traditional public schools. For example, they do not receive public funds for building expenses. Lack of access to affordable real estate often prohibits charter school expansion and the replication of quality charters. St. Louis and Kansas City Public Schools, however, both have their share of abandoned buildings. As a result, taxpayers are basically funding vacant buildings. Neglected facilities increase the risk of drug and crime incidents in urban communities. Allowing public charter schools to purchase taxpayer-owned real estate at fair-market value could increase educational opportunities while revitalizing blighted neighborhoods.
Now, here is what I find particularly interesting about the notion that St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) needs to hold on to buildings in case enrollment increases. First, enrollment has been steadily declining since the late 1990s. Since 1999, the district has lost half of its students. The district has had to close many school buildings in that time. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the district had 130 operating schools in 1991, 113 in 1999, and 77 in 2013.
Using the enrollment figures and the number of school buildings, I can compute the number of students per building. Of course, this is an average, and the actual enrollments vary. In 1991, the average enrollment per building was 333, in 1999 it was 396, and in 2013 it was 327. The enrollment today, per building, is less than it was at each of these times. In other words, SLPS buildings are no more crowded today than they ever have been.
The largest enrollment increase in the past 20-plus years was 2,684 in 2013. This was the year after the Imagine Charter Schools closed their doors. Using the average building enrollment figures, this increase is roughly the enrollment of six to eight schools.
Yet, according to information gathered by Abby Fallon, a former Show-Me Institute intern, SLPS has 35 empty schools. The district currently has 25 buildings listed for sale.
It is always nice to save for a rainy day, but saving 30-plus buildings seems a bit much. SLPS must be expecting it to pour new students! In the unlikely event that SLPS had a large influx of students, it might make sense to have a couple of buildings on reserve. Still, this hardly justifies blocking the sale of two dozen other buildings that could be put to good use as a charter school.
Charter schools paying fair-market value seems like a pretty good deal to me. There is even a strong case that charters should have access to these buildings for free. As Doug Thaman of the Missouri Charter Public School Association said, “Why should a charter school use public dollars to buy a public building that’s already been paid for by the public? It’s almost like buying your home twice.”