Written by Renee Kuhlman
Is it just me or are there a lot more threatened historic schools these days?
Last week, I was contacted by brave souls working night and day in California and Michigan to save their community’s historic school from being closed down and demolished.
My “morning commute” leads me right past a 1950s school that’s being demolished in downtown Blacksburg, Virgina, the hope being, I guess, that an empty lot will sell faster and for more money than one with a reusable brick building.
As I scan daily news from around the country, I frequently read about folks like Selma school board member Frank Chestnut Jr., whose district includes historic Byrd Elementary. Chestnut was surprised to learn last week, that the school is slated for closure in 2013. The Selma Times Journal reported his surprise and his concern that the closing will “create another eyesore that would damage the surrounding community.”
I’ve come to learn that this isn’t just an American phenomenon—it’s an international crisis. In Scotland, the proposed closure of 25 small schools in Argyll and Bute is not going smoothly—advocates claim the closure would affect the very existence of several communities, increase children’s commutes, and decrease expected dollars from the Scottish government. So many English schools are being affected by the economy that English Heritage has developed several tools publications to help communities struggling to keep their historic schools in continued use.
I’ve done enough research to know that there are policies and practices that work to discourage renovation. And obviously our weak economy is also to blame. But, I’d argue that there is an even greater fiscal miscalculation: we undervalue the role our older schools play in our community. We simply are not calculating the full costs of closing or demolishing these historic schools.
For example, if a school district closes a neighborhood school, then less public and private investment is made at that site and over time surrounding property values decline. In most instances, these same property taxes help fund repair and construction of school facilities. So in the short term, you may have saved money but you’ve also just helped “kill the golden goose.”
Astoundingly in age of concerns over air quality, childhood obesity and global warming, we fail to fully examine the real costs – fiscal and environmental of transporting students to a more distant location. Even if the state picks up most of the tab, or even if the parents are now driving “little Johnny” to school, the increase in cost is coming out of taxpayer pockets. With fewer kids walking and biking to school there are less opportunities for daily physical activity–both during the commute to school and also during off-hours on school grounds. Surely there is then a cost in terms of our kids’ health and an increase in health costs down the road when we’re dealing with individuals who never got in the habit of walking or biking to their destinations?
This brings up another cost – the environmental cost. If we abandon the schools that are closest to us, we’re going to using a lot more fossil fuels to get where we need to go. What does this mean in cost of fuel consumption, more staffing, and additional buses? What does this mean in terms of the quality of air we breathe?
I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read where the solution to today’s economic crisis is to consolidate kids into fewer facilities. What is the educational cost of having our kids taught in larger classrooms with less opportunity for interaction with their teacher?
Another cost we haven’t really calculated fully is the decrease in neighborhood vitality. What happens when the anchor that pulls neighbors together is gone? Do the nearby shops see less business? Do neighbors run into each other less often? Is there even a sense of neighborhood or is it just a bunch of houses?
So share with me and others–how do you calculate the value of your local historic school?
Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policy program. This project, undertaken through a cooperative agreement with the US EPA, helps states encourage more community-centered schools through both policy and practice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.