Meadville Tribune

Local News

March 4, 2013

New uses being sought for old schools

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HARRISBURG — Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

The school closing crisis is driven by multiple factors: budget pressure tied to state funding, demographics and a bias in the educational system toward launching impressive building projects when less-expensive renovation efforts are possible, experts said.

No matter what factors drive the decision, when a school closes, much of the energy and vitality of the neighborhood goes away, as well.

The school closings in Philadelphia are more related to population loss than any shift in state funding.

Elsewhere across the state there have been closings associated with belt-tightening by school boards trying to make ends meet. But in many cases, school districts opted to replace existing schools with newer ones, either because state funding formulas made large construction seem more attractive or simply because school leaders wanted to match ambitious construction projects undertaken in other districts, said Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and anti-sprawl advocate.

“There is a culture in education that favors spending a lot of money and building fancy buildings,” Hylton said. “And nine times out of 10, the people on school board will not question a superintendent about it.”

Hylton, who serves on his local school board, said there are examples all over Pennsylvania of cases where districts opted to build more expensively than necessary while abandoning buildings that could be renovated.

A decade ago, the New Castle School District decided to replace its 90-year-old high school even though an architect presented the board with a plan to repair the building for less than they planned to spend on construction of a new building, Hylton said. The construction then required the district to seize a dozen homes.

More recently, in Lewisburg, the district is preparing to move its high school on the edge of the downtown to “a cornfield out by the Lewisburg penitentiary” even as Bucknell University has established a prominent footprint in the downtown by opening its bookstore on Market Street and helping to revitalize the landmark Campus Theater.

Hylton said that if reduced state funding lends some fiscal discipline to school boards, it would be worthwhile.

“You can spend money on kids or you can spend it on buildings,” Hylton said.

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