WHAT OTHERS SAY: What to do with yesterday's monuments to public education

Monday, February 25, 2013 | 9:36 a.m. CST; updated 10:27 a.m. CST, Monday, February 25, 2013

St. Louis Public Schools might sometimes be short on supplies, but they are long on surplus schools.

The district has 36 schools or parcels that are empty; 13 are currently for sale. The remaining 23 are dinosaurs — too large, too unstable or otherwise less attractive for buyers.

Marti Roveda, whose background is as a manager of distressed properties, was named director of real estate for the school district nearly a year ago. Prior to her hiring, Ms. Roveda worked for the St. Louis Development Corp., which is the city’s economic development arm.

She said in an interview on Friday that the district has a plan for the properties. The goal is to sell them for strategic development that will benefit the communities where they are located.

“We don’t want to just be selling them to a developer or organization,” Ms. Roveda noted. “We don’t want it to be piecemeal development. It’s important for us to make sure that it’s (development) done in a strategic manner that is beneficial to the communities.”

Those are laudable goals. The concern is whether they are achievable.

St. Louis is among a dozen cities with a high number of shuttered public school buildings that were studied recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The other cities in the study are Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Okla., and Washington, D.C.

“Large-scale public school closures have become a fact of life in many American cities, and that trend is not likely to stop now,” the study said.

The study suggested that school districts not sit on properties, but move aggressively to sell or lease them soon after they are closed. Information should be made readily accessible to prospective buyers or lessors and the public.

Smaller buildings that have not been closed for too long are the most marketable. It’s more likely that those buildings will still have intact roofs and mechanical systems and are in neighborhoods with relatively healthy real estate markets.

St. Louis school officials told the study authors that it has had the most success selling buildings with about 40,000 square feet, compared to trying to sell those parcels that have more than 100,000 square feet.

Philadelphia was the only city in the study in which the school district has a formal, written set of reuse guidelines for its shuttered schools. St. Louis was notable for having specific goals, one of which is obvious: To generate the biggest long-term financial return for the district.

“We’re going to look more favorably on uses with an economic development component,” Ms. Roveda told the study’s author. “We’d consider lowering the price to make a deal happen if we’ll make it up on the back end in tax revenue.”

Many of the districts have struggled with whether to allow charter schools to buy or lease their buildings. St. Louis has had a rocky history regarding charter-school use of its buildings but does allow them.

Imagine Schools Inc. acquired two buildings that had been St. Louis city schools and operated six charter schools, all of which the state closed in 2011 because of academic failure. The school district is leasing back one of those schools, which it is using as an elementary and middle school. The other school is owned privately.

While scaring away potential buyers is a risk, school districts need to make sure properties are used as intended. Navigating the territory between those interests, which might be competing against one another, can be tricky. St. Louis is requiring that in deeds for all future sales, promised construction must start within 12 months and be completed within 30 months of the purchase date.

The district retains the right to buy back the property at 70 percent of the sale price if either milestone is not met. Buyers are prohibited from using the schools as bars, nightclubs, adult book stores, landfills or manufacturing businesses.

The Pew study suggested that school districts might need to be realistic about pricing. St. Louis schools are an example — they have sold at about 85 percent of what the district was seeking, according to the Pew study.

One problem not measured in dollars and cents: Memories and emotions that surround neighborhood schools whenever anyone talks about closing them, selling them or razing them. Ms. Roveda said that most of the time, neighbors don’t want the schools in their communities torn down.

“People don’t want their memories erased. Even if the school is closed, it’s still somebody’s corner store in their neighborhood. It’s a difficult subject,” she said.

Tearing down an old school can also be a financial black hole. St. Louis recently tore down the Hodgen School at 2748 Henrietta Place, an architecturally significant Classical Revival building erected in 1884. Neighbors had complained about illegal activity inside the building, adjacent to an active elementary school. The demolition cost of $700,000 was higher than the $570,000 median sales price for other closed buildings in the district.

This is one of those problems with no easy solution. Making more state historic tax credits available so developers can use them to rehab the old school properties would help, offered Ms. Roveda. But the state is talking about capping that program so there’s little hope for an economic incentive there.

It might be that the buildings should be sold cheap to get them off the books. These grand monuments once stood as symbols of commitment to quality public education for all. Today they might just be getting in the way of what’s left of that commitment.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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