An important issue was raised in The Post's Feb. 22 editorial concerning the city's deficit and the responsibility of the school board to close its unneeded schools. In light of the District's $90 million budget deficit, the time is right to focus on these underutilized buildings and return them to productive and income-generating uses.
Eighteen surplus schools have already been closed because they no longer serve their educational purposes. The city claims that all of these buildings are in use. Unfortunately, the majority are serving as warehouses for city agencies and are generating no income. The buildings themselves are slowly deteriorating because of lack of maintenance and upkeep. The "demolition by neglect" of Summer School has taught us a valuable lesson: these buildings need to be maintained before it is too late and too costly to rehabilitate.
The adaptation of these schools to productive new uses can benefit the District in two ways: 1) by putting these structures on the tax rolls and 2) by revitalizing the surrounding neighborhoods, integrating the schools back into the neighborhood rather than letting them remain eyesores.
Most of these schools are two- or three-story, red-brick structures built in the late 1800s and are located in dense, inner-city neighborhoods. They were once the economic and social inchors of the surrounding area. By restoring their dignity, the whole neighborhood could be revitalized.
Nationwide, localities have been successful in reusing surplus schools for community services through mixed uses and joint occupancy. They are ideally located in the very neighborhoods that desperately need more community services: community agencies and organizations, adult education, vocational training, day-care and extended-day facilities, senior-citizen programs, medical health facilities, legal services and recreational programs.
Many of the uses could be successfully integrated in one school building: one excellent idea would be a combination well-baby clinic, an immunization center, a health and nutritional counseling program and day-care facilities.
Another possible use for these school buildings is housing. The conversion of surplus school buildings into housing has been successfully accomplished in Massachusetts, and at a lower cost and in less construction time than new housing. Baltimore, with the help of HUD funding, is currently converting six surplus school buildings into low-income housing and has found that the cost of conversion ranges from $19 to $44 a square foot, compared with $44 a square foot for new construction. In addition to this savings, these formerly unused structures are now generating income and tax dollars.
There is also a moral issue here. It is the people who funded these school buildings in the first place. Our tax dollars constructed them. They belong to the District's residents, not to the school board or the city government. Although these schools can no longer serve to educate our children, they can continue to provide services and housing to the community.
At a time when the District desperately needs not only revenue, but also facilities for community services and low and moderately priced housing, these schools should not be forgotten.