02/15/2011 05:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

If you believe the recent prognostication from Punxsutawney Phil, we will soon be saying goodbye to winter. (Although those of us who lived through last year's "Snowpocalypse" in the Washington, D.C. area are going to need more than a groundhog's word to believe that).

But there's another type of farewell on the way that will be heralded by the coming spring. School closings are in the air for many school districts. Will those goodbyes be as welcome as the melting snows?

Many school districts saw their enrollment populations boom in the mid '70s to mid '80s. The Detroit Public School system, for example, enrolled almost 200,000 students less than 15 years ago -- but by this past September they were lucky to enroll 87,000. This sea-change in school population has necessitated school closings.

In some areas where there isn't an overall decline in enrollment, there is often a migration of the district's population from one neighborhood to another that leads to school closings. Or, if there are not enrollment problems, then there are building problems. If not building problems, then budget problems. Whatever the reasons, from coast to coast, schools are closing.

The school closing process follows the classic pattern of the five stages of grief: first denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

And with that process of accepting comes the determination -- which one? Which schools must close their doors?

Let me paint a scenario for you: the state has threatened to withhold matching funds until your school district administration agrees to reduce their surplus building inventory by "X" percent. What criteria do you use? Should the oldest go first?

As I have written in previous postings, some of these buildings are the gems of our inventory. Should the schools within the region with the greatest decline in enrollment be the first to go? The criticism of this approach is that the areas with declining enrollment might need added attention to stem the flight.

OK, then how about the school buildings with the greatest need? Again, the typical criticism is that the reason that these facilities are in such bad shape is that they have been ignored and resources withheld.

My experience tells me that the person who says there is an easy solution, with obvious choices, is a person who has never had to close neighborhood schools.

Mr. Thomas Brady, superintendent of schools for the Providence Public School District, reminded us before a recent evening community meeting that closing a school, any school, is an emotional proposition. That evening representatives from a small (less that 100 student) high school that was housed in a bank building without proper classrooms or cafeteria, a gym, auditorium or media center, pleaded for over an hour to rescind what they believed to be a planning recommendation to close their school.

The district was showing a significant surplus of facility inventory, some of which was in new buildings. The state had threatened to withhold the district's state funds and the school was within a quarter mile of a large comprehensive high school. Surplus facility, limited resources and proximate facilities.

If those were not the criteria that a community should use when deciding to say goodbye, what are? More importantly, can these decisions be removed from anecdotal, seat-of-the-pants judgments and quantified with objective measures and standards?

Such a procedure does exist and it's called a Master Facilities Plan.

One of the most troubled school systems in the nation has been, to my mind quite tragically, in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. But D.C. schools are in the midst of a stunning turnaround, in part because of the work being done by administrators, leaders and stakeholders in the District of Columbia Master Facilities Plan.

The DCPS MFP, adopted in February of 2009 and modified in 2010, used the following criteria:

  • Educational Adequacy
  • Schools as the Center of Community
  • Demographics
  • Facility Condition
  • Operational Efficiency

And instead of looking for spikes of failure, they looked at trends in performance. In other words, they looked at all five matrices to determine defensible strategies. The advantage was that these trends could live beyond the published Master Facilities Plan. Triggers were set in place where things would take place if the trends in the five matrices continued to move in certain directions.

For example, it becomes inefficient for urban school districts to operate a grade level at a school once enrollment falls below a certain point. The State of Michigan Department of Education has an academic model that cannot support a middle school much below 350 students.

Objective experience has shown -- although there are, of course, exceptions -- that below four classes per grade it's hard to support the full range of support academics (i.e. health instructor, librarian, music teacher). Again, they can exist but below that magic number those resources have to be shared with another school or program.

Not to be cruel, but when do the wants of the few outweigh the needs of the many? If you objectively compiled your data, stacked it against your criteria, noted the trends of performance and decided to close a school; how do you say goodbye?

Can a building that once served as a school continue to support community needs as a center, library, annex? Or should it be sold off to live on in another incarnation, as offices, housing or nonprofit space?

Or is the best decision that the building come down in a cloud of dust and smoke, making way for future generations just as it set the course for the previous ones?

Either way, whether it's with a coat of paint or a cloud of dust, this season we will say goodbye to a number of our school buildings. Let us make sure that we do not pull these decisions out of a groundhog's burrow just to make a proclamation, shove the prognosticator back in the hole and turn our back. There is an art to goodbye and it comes with a lot of planning.

And if you do it right, that planning can mean saying hello to myriad new possibilities and opportunities.