What to Do With Vacant School Buildings
Public school systems are tasked with a tremendous responsibility. Not only do we expect them to educate our children, but we also expect them to be good stewards of the tax dollars we give them. To do this, a school system must make sure buses are running on time, nutritious meals are prepared for students, teachers deliver effective instruction, and students are supported in safe environments. These, of course, are just some of the obvious responsibilities of a school system. Urban school districts, such as Saint Louis and Kansas City, have a unique problem to deal with—vacant school buildings.
Like most urban school districts, Saint Louis and Kansas City have had declining enrollment for decades. They are also facing stiff competition from charter schools, which enroll 29 and 42 percent of all public school students in each respective city. This has left each district with more than 30 vacant school buildings. Vacant buildings are a problem for the district and the community. The cost of maintenance can be a drain on resources, diverting dollars away from the classroom. The buildings can also become an eyesore for the community, inviting vagrants and illegal activity.
In my latest paper, “Vacant School Buildings: An Examination of Kansas City and Saint Louis,” former Show-Me Institute intern Abigail Fallon and I explore this complex issue. Unlike most areas of education, little research exists on vacant school buildings, and few claim to know how to handle these properties. While there may not be a definitive answer on what should be done, we argue that school districts should be more intentional about divesting these buildings or putting them back to productive use. To that end, we offer some possible solutions, namely, that these buildings should be made available for lease or sold to charter schools.
The bottom line is that school districts must become more diligent in dealing with this problem.