Metro

School closings bring pain, and not always savings

Rousemary Vega (center) and two unidentified men occupied a classroom at Lafayette Elementary School in Chicago to protest its closing in June 2013.

Scott Eisen/Associated Press/file

Rousemary Vega (center) and two unidentified men occupied a classroom at Lafayette Elementary School in Chicago to protest its closing in June 2013.

Rousemary Vega still weeps when she remembers the principal calling her with the news: Lafayette Elementary in Chicago — the school she attended as a girl and where her children were in the first and fourth grades — was targeted for closure.

“It felt like I just received a call telling me a family member had passed away,” Vega said. “A thousand questions came rushing by. Who would do this? Who can I talk to?”

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Vega denounced the plans at rallies and hearings and was part of a group of parents and activists who occupied the big brick school on the day it closed in 2013. The following year, she heckled Mayor Rahm Emanuel and was forcibly removed from a Board of Education meeting, screaming, “I have a right to speak!”

If Mayor Martin J. Walsh and his newly minted superintendent of schools, Tommy Chang, begin a round of school closings next year, as they have indicated, they could face a similarly wrenching emotional and political backlash.

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And the financial and academic benefits, according to studies, are often overstated.

Urban districts from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, faced with declining enrollment, deteriorating buildings, and tight budgets, have closed schools over the last decade, promising that the city will be able to spend its resources more efficiently.

But the money saved, at least in the short run, “has been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets, with the largest savings achieved when closings were combined with large-scale layoffs,” according to a study of school closings in six large urban districts by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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Poor and minority families tend to be most affected because districts typically target schools with the most empty seats, lowest rankings, and most dilapidated buildings, which are often in the neighborhoods where they live.

When Chicago, for example, in 2013 closed 49 schools, 87 percent of the students affected were African-American, even though fewer than half of the district’s students are black, said Pauline Lipman, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Most of the 23 schools that Washington, D.C., closed in 2008 were also in predominantly black neighborhoods, said Abigail Smith, former chief of transformation management for Washington’s schools.

“The issue of race plays a significant role and, in general, the schools that were serving the most affluent students and whites tended to be overflowing, so not on the closure list,” Smith said. “That was something that certainly added a level of frustration and tension.”

The last major wave of closings in Boston was in 2010, when the district, facing a budget shortfall, closed or merged 18 schools, leaving eight buildings empty. City officials said Monday that they did not have readily available figures on how much those closings saved.

Six years later, the district continues to face deficits, which have been blamed in part on maintaining more buildings than necessary.

A city-commissioned study by McKinsey & Co. found that Boston has seats for 93,000 students in 126 schools, despite enrollment falling by 50 percent to 57,000 over the last four decades. The drop includes 9,000 students who have left for charter schools.

McKinsey estimated that Boston could save about $2 million for every school it closed, although most of the savings would come from laying off teachers.

It’s unclear, however, how closures might unfold in Boston, including how many schools may be targeted. City officials are reluctant to discuss details while they conduct an audit of every school building, slated for completion this year.

“At some point, we’re going to have to look at it,” Walsh said last week. “We have to look at our costs and, as we move forward here, we will make some decisions.”

Other cities have struggled to sell, lease, or redevelop closed schools and “no district has reaped anything like a windfall from such transactions,” the Pew study said.

Milwaukee, which closed 20 schools between 2005 and 2010, expected to save $10 million per year, but saved $6.6 million annually, the study said. Washington saved $17 million per year, short of its initial projection of $23 million.

Another Pew report found that more than 40 percent of schools closed in 12 urban districts were turned into charter schools, while many remained vacant for years, casting a pall over their neighborhoods.

But if Boston’s real estate market remains hot, vacant schools would probably be snatched up by developers and net a significant profit for the city, said Gregory P. Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Last year, for example, the Archdiocese of Boston sold a shuttered church in East Boston for $3 million to developers who plan to convert it to housing.

“The way some of the neighborhoods have taken off, there would be a market for this, absolutely,” Vasil said.

Research suggests that closings improve academic achievement only if the displaced students are moved to more highly performing schools. Seats in those schools, however, are often scarce.

In Chicago, 93 percent of students whose schools were closed moved to schools with better rankings, but most of those were only slightly better, according to a study by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research. More than a third of students remained in schools ranked in the bottom 25 percent, the study said.

The political damage, however, was significant.

The closings triggered large protests and helped force Emanuel, a rising star, into a runoff election two years later. Still, Jesse H. Ruiz, a former vice president of the Chicago Board of Education, said the closures were necessary because some schools designed to hold 1,000 students had only a few hundred and many were academically subpar.

In the future, he said, “instead of putting a cornerstone on a school building, we should put an expiration date, and not guarantee any community that a school has to be there for hundreds of years.”

Public outcry over the closures in Washington helped contribute to the 2010 defeat of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the resignation of his hard-charging schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee.

And when the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to close 23 schools in 2013, hundreds of protesters blocked a major thoroughfare and 19 of them, including the president of the American Federation of Teachers, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

“There was no one who ever said, ‘This is a good idea; close my school,’ ” said Feather O. Houstoun, a member of the state-appointed commission that oversees Philadelphia’s schools. “It’s a very lonely process to go through, and you have to really believe you can get past it and move on or you will lose courage, because it was emotional for everybody. There were at least two commissioners who were in tears at least two times.”

At the time, Houstoun said, the schools were facing a budget crisis, buildings were crumbling, and nearly a third of the district’s seats were empty, due in part to the growth of charter schools.

“We really had no choice,” Houstoun said. “We had to find every possible way to save money, in order to find money for classrooms and put teachers in front of kids.”

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said he would never rule out closings but questioned whether the city really has 36,000 empty seats, as the McKinsey study suggested.

He also said it’s misleading to judge schools based on the number of empty seats when many also lack gymnasiums, libraries, and space for professional staff.

“This is not a matter only of schools being underutilized,” Stutman said. “It’s also a situation where schools don’t have enough space for the jobs they have to do now.”

Walsh said the city may build schools in neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill and downtown that have none. About two-thirds of Boston’s school buildings predate World War II.

The mayor, riding high in polls, said he hopes to avoid the anger that has swamped other leaders who closed schools. “You need to have an open community process and have dialogue and conversation,” he said.

In Philadelphia, city officials tried to smooth the transition for displaced students by renovating classrooms and holding welcoming ceremonies, Houstoun said.

“We could have made the pain go away quicker by putting more humanity into it,” she said. “But the trick is that, until you’ve made the decision that, yes, we’re going to close your school, people who oppose the closure want nothing to do with being welcomed elsewhere.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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