Schools wave goodbye to students, hello to business

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Claude Turner saw the handwriting on the wall seven years ago. Enrollment in histiny, seven-school district in northern California had peaked at 3,500. Population projections predicted that declining enrollment was on the way -- and hard on its heels was sure to be a heated community debate on whether to shut down empty schools.

"We thought the schools should be thought of as so much space," says Dr. Turner, superintendent of the Belmont School District. "And we asked ourselves, 'What would business do with that space?'"

"They'd rent it," he answers.

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Which is exactly what the school district has done for the past four years. The district -- which now has shrunk to 2,000 students --has kept all its schools open by renting out surplus classrooms to private businesses that range from day-care centers to a telephone solicitation business and a locomotive engineers' union.

The Belmont solution is what school administrators call "joint use" or occupancy -- meaning that at the same time children are in school, empty classrooms on the same campus or possibly in the same building are being used by private businesses or community-oriented service groups.

Although joint use is not a new idea -- some schools adopted it as long as a decade ago -- observers say it has drawn an increasing amount of attention as public support for schools has slackened and budgets hav tightened.

The concept has drawn fire from critics who argue that school officials are in the education business not real estate management But during a period in which changing demographics have forced school boards across the country to grapple with school closures -- and, more important, with angry parents who don't want their neighborhood school shut down -- joint-use policies have become increasingly popular as away to deal with the problem of the declining enrollment.

"I don't see this as a time of gloom, but a time of boom," says Robert Posilkin, coordinator of the joint occupancy program for Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools. "We can seize on closure and decline and really make use of them as wonderful opportunities.

"Take day care," says Mr. Posilkin, who counts 40 day-care centers among the tenants who will pay the 180-school district $306,000 in rental fees this year. "There's a greater need than ever before for day care, and we can provide that now in a way we couldn't have years ago.

"This is a time of change," he continues. "And out of this change we're getting something that's better than what we had before. That's what surplus space is all about."

In the past decade, as school enrollments have dropped with the tapering off of the 1950s baby boom and changing population patterns, the number of elementary and secondary schools in the United States dropped from 91,152 to 86, 266, according to the National Center for educational statistics.

Some school closures are expected to continue, particularly as district officials find they are able to bring in much-needed revenues by selling off choice pieces of property to shopping-center or condominium developers. Other schools are being mothballed in anticipationof a reverse in enrollment trends. And still others are being completely leased or given over to community service agencies like local parks and recreation departments.

Although proponents agree that joint occupancy is not the answer for every school in every district, they argue that it offers what Mike Collins of the Center for Educational Facilities Planning calls "the biggest bang for the buck."

Parents and children, for example, get to keep their neighborhood school. Taxpayers get a more-efficient system. And school administrators get a boost in revenues that many districts badly need in the wake of property tax-slashing measures like California's Proposition 13.

Carefully choosing compatible outside businesses to share facilities with schools, proponents say, can result in benefits for both.

"It's an all-win proposition. Everybody wins," says Belmont's Dr. Turner, who spent a year explaining joint use to the community before the district began renting out space.

"Parents could see the trade-off," he says. "They realized that if they didn't accept something else in the schools, theirm school might be the one that could close."

There are complications, however. Most states have laws prohibiting the use of schools for anything other than instruction of children -- although in recent years, some states, including New Jersey, California, and Connecticut, have changed their laws to allow more flexible use of surplus school space. (In California, new joint-use deals have been temporarily put on hold while a clarification of the revised law is being sought from the attorney general).

What is more, joint occupancy policies offer long-term, not short-term payoffs. School districts must often invest money in building renovation to adapt classrooms for use by tenants. In addition, some districts simply don't have the financial know-how to run a joint-use program: Wisonsin's Madison Metropolitan School District, for example, lost $90,000 on its leasing deals last year. District officials, however, didn't abandon the program -- they decided to hire a property management firm to handle it instead.

School officials like Belmont's Turner and Montgomery County's Posilkin say they Regularly receive requests for information from school districts around the country. At the nonprofit Center for Educational Facilities Planning in Columbus, Ohio, 15 to 20 requests a week are received for information or assistance in planning for the use and reuse of school buildings -- a number that is up 60 percent in the three years since the center opened, says Mike Collins.

Still, because declining enrollment remains a highly emotional issue, joint-use policies are not likely to be adopted overnight, school planners say. The concept of joint occupancy introduces a whole new dimension to the role of a neighborhood school, they say, and that may take some getting used to on the part of the surrounding community.

"IT's not as common as it could be, "says Ellen Bussard, project director of Educational Facilities Laboratories. "Only as it becomes common."

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