Nation's largest cities have hundreds of empty schools, report says

Hundreds of schools in the nation's largest cities are sitting empty as education officials struggle to sell these potentially valuable properties that are a drain on school district finances, according to a study released Monday.

In the dozen cities the Pew Charitable Trusts reviewed, some 327 schools were sitting idle last year and for sale. That means those properties -- typically nestled in residential neighborhoods -- are costing districts that still have to keep them secure, insured and heated. Meanwhile, the financially strapped districts are not collecting taxes on some prime real estate to fund the schools that do survive.

"We still have school police officers and engineers in the building to make sure it's not a dangerous location," Philadelphia schools spokeswoman Deirdre Darragh.

But with more parents choosing charter schools or private options, the need for these aging public buildings has shrunk in cities. Pew researchers anticipated the number of for-sale buildings will swell in coming years as school districts consolidate their facilities in response to tighter budgets and more families moving out of the cities and into the suburbs.

In Philadelphia alone, 37 schools are set to be closed next year in what would be one of the nation's largest closings. That follows the sale of 11 buildings already and another six that are on the market.

Nationally, the data foretells a shift as public school officials take on added roles of real estate agent, auctioneer or landlord. Some districts have turned to real estate brokers for help while others have accepted lower bids simply to get the buildings off their books. Some, such as Detroit, manage their real estate marketing internally with two staffers.

"Typically, they're not just set up to sell and manage real estate," said Pew researcher Emily Dowdall.

And it's not always easy to sell these schools, which were built decades ago for very specific uses.

Since 2005, Detroit has either sold or leased 63 of its buildings but still has 124 former schools on the market. A sharp decline in the city's population, as well as a 31 percent growth in charter school enrollment since 2005, prompted the one-time manufacturing hub to overhaul where it is teaching its students.

Detroit is hardly alone.

The District of Columbia has sold or leased 40 of its buildings, largely to charter schools, since 2005. Cincinnati did the same with 27 of its schools. Cleveland has found new uses for 25 of its buildings.

Even so, Cleveland still has 27 up for grabs and bulldozed seven others to turn those sites into parks.

The number of idle buildings does not include properties that the districts are holding on to but are not using. Cleveland, for instance, kept several buildings at the ready to fill in for others they plan to renovate in the future, officials there said.

Even for districts that are able to sell unused buildings, they seldom are getting their full value. For example, Cincinnati auctioned 11 buildings and a piece of land for $3.5 million. The county auditor valued the property at almost $31 million.

Most buildings, Pew found, sell for between $200,000 and $1 million.

Some 42 percent of the schools Pew reviewed found a second act as a charter school. Ohio, Georgia and Washington have laws that require districts to let charter operators make a bid on a closed school before anyone else, easing the way for those schools.

One of biggest challenges for districts looking to unload excess property is that many of these buildings were built to accommodate hundreds of students -- not tenants. And many have been vacant for more than a decade and appear abandoned.

In a few cases, the schools have been completely gutted and transformed. One Detroit school was made into a recording studio. Another in Milwaukee is set to become a community center. In Pittsburgh, one building became a technology center focused on environmentally friendly jobs.

Pew's study looked at school systems in Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tulsa.