Old school buildings pose challenge
By Brian C. Rittmeyer
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013, 12:26 a.m.
Salina is a little village of century-old homes in Bell Township.
Nearly as old is George Sucke, 95, who has lived there most of his life. He graduated from Bell Township High School in 1935. He lives across the street from the school, now Kiski Area's Bell-Avon Elementary School.
The school dominates the village. It was a convenience when Sucke's two sons went to school there.
Now, the school is set to close at the end of this school year. Sucke isn't sure what he'd like to see happen with it, but he has concerns.
“Like everything else, when it's abandoned the first thing you get is broken windows,” he said. “From then on, there's no stopping.”
The story about to unfold in Bell Township is one that has played out in numerous neighborhoods across the Alle-Kiski Valley as school districts merged and consolidated, and populations and approaches to education changed.
Some of the former schools have found new lives as apartments, churches, community buildings and businesses. Others have been demolished or left to rot. Some have had uses proposed, only to see them fall through.
It's not an issue exclusive to the past.
Kiski Area will be closing Bell-Avon and two other elementary schools within the next couple of years. Freeport Area is expected to close the district's junior high school and kindergarten center, both in Freeport.
Both districts are building or planning to build new schools, and moving children around. Officials at both districts said they have not decided what they'll do with the soon-to-be-empty buildings.
It's a double impact for Freeport Borough, which will be left with no schools and two large, empty buildings.
“It's not an issue we're happy with,” said council President Donald Rehner. “I wish it wasn't happening.”
Study: Hard sell
A recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts found school districts in Pittsburgh and other big cities are struggling to find new uses for hundreds of schools closed because of declining enrollment.
The trust's study focused on urban areas. While the situation is different in suburban and rural communities, some of the same lessons apply, said Emily Dowdall, a Pew senior associate.
Finding new uses for old buildings is challenging for school districts because they're not set up to buy and sell real estate, Dowdall said.
But empty schools can harm neighborhoods, attract illegal activities and be costly to seal, maintain and insure.
While the Pew study found charter schools are the most common re-use of urban schools — bringing questions over whether that's desirable — charter schools are usually not a factor in rural areas, Dowdall said.
However, that's happening here and now in the Alle-Kiski Valley.
The Armstrong School Board will decide Monday whether to allow a charter school to take over the soon-to-be-closed Elderton Junior-Senior High School building.
Schools can be hard to sell because many are old, large and decaying. Their layouts may not be conducive to new uses.
Many are in residential areas, limiting both their potential uses and their value.
Depending on a building's age, lead paint, asbestos and even buried fuel tanks can be environmental hazards.
A building's location, zoning and market all come into play when determining if and how a school can be reused, said John Watson, owner of Fourth River Development, which the Pittsburgh Public School District hired to help with analyzing 21 shuttered schools.
By design, schools often lend themselves well to being used for housing, Watson said.
“They have a lot of windows usually,” he said. “Usually, the schools have a playground or something adjoining it that can be turned into parking.”
But schools also can be difficult to work with, especially if asbestos or lead paint are an issue.
Stairs are needed, but schools often have more than necessary, and the stairwells are large. Large atriums and auditoriums can be difficult to use.
Or, those features can be positives. A large gym could be used for the enjoyment of new residents, or it can be split into two floors, gaining extra space.
Districts “really need to understand what they have in the way of an asset, the building and the property associated with it,” Watson said. “They should do some sort of market analysis. That will lead them in the best direction to unload that asset.”
Kiski Area historically has offered schools to their communities before trying to sell them, Superintendent John Meighan said.
“For many districts, the first thought is to try to find some return on the value of the buildings to place back into the new project that was completed,” said Freeport Area spokesman Todd O'Shell.
The right buyer
Highlands School District is working to unload two buildings. It is finalizing a $1 million deal to sell Heights Elementary to a developer, who plans to demolish the building.
The district is also trying to sell its former administration center, once Riverview Elementary School. The building and more than 2 acres are listed for $440,000 with Czekalski Real Estate.
Schools can be sold by public auction, with sealed bids or in a private sale with court approval, said Highlands Business Manager Jon Rupert.
The district pursued a private sale for Heights Elementary and listed the administration center for sale after both failed to garner any bids.
“Most of the schools in our area have been converted to apartments,” said Janet Czekalski, co-owner and sales manager of Czekalski Real Estate.
The Highlands administration building is in good condition, she said, and could be converted into apartments. But it could be good for many uses, even a business incubator, Czekalski said.
“You have to find the right buyer,” she said. “There's a buyer out there — we just have to find them.”
Rehner is hopeful Freeport Area's kindergarten center, in Freeport's business district, will lend itself to offices.
The junior high is another matter.
“Its age and its size perhaps work against it,” Rehner said.
Rehner said the borough is trying to organize a committee to work with school board members on brainstorming ideas for reuses.
“It's never good to have empty buildings,” Rehner said.
“Any time a building is vacant for an extended period of time there's possible problems with vandalism,” he said. “I would hope they would not get to that point.”
A perfect home
Despite the challenges, some schools have found second lives, some wholly unlike their first.
Rabkin Dermatopathology is an independent lab that studies skin samples. It found a new home in the old 2nd Ward School in Tarentum, which had most recently been used as a senior center.
Beth Rabkin is the office administrator for the business owned by her husband, Michael Rabkin. They bought the building from Highlands in 2008, relocating from rented space at RIDC Park in O'Hara the following year.
“It just suited our needs,” she said. “We liked the fact that it had been a schoolhouse. What we do is pretty intellectual.”
Beth Rabkin said the building was perfect for them, even though they had to go through a lengthy bidding process and needed more than $1 million in renovations.
Beyond improving the building's electrical and plumbing systems and installing an elevator, the Rabkins restored original windows that had been bricked or boarded over to bring in natural light, and opened ceilings that had been dropped.
“Nothing about the building was up to code,” she said. “It didn't have an elevator. It didn't have handicapped-accessible anything when we bought it.”
In 2002, South Butler closed four elementary schools — Clinton, Jefferson, Penn and Winfield — and opened a new primary school and converted Saxonburg Elementary into an intermediate elementary school.
Winfield Elementary became Cabot United Methodist Church. Churches are another common reuse of public schools.
Rev. Matthew Judd said the church bought the nearby school for $251,000 after figuring out an expansion of its former building wouldn't work.
“It had everything we needed except a sanctuary,” Judd said. A sanctuary is now being built, and is expected to be finished in December.
While at first it seemed the school had more space than the church could ever possibly use, Judd said they quickly found use for all of it.
There was space to expand the food bank, and dedicated space for the youth and children's ministry.
“As we got into the school we saw new opportunities we hadn't seen before,” Judd said. “There was a creative explosion here.”
Back in Bell Township, a flag still flutters in the breeze outside Bell-Avon Elementary, and the sound of school life penetrates its brick walls.
Neighbor Matthew Stritzinger has lived with the school for 20 years. It's a busy place in the morning and the afternoon with the school buses, but it hasn't been a bother.
“I'm sure somebody will buy it,” he said. “It will make a nice apartment building, an old folks home or something.”
Cheryl Ringle, another neighbor, would like it to stay open.
“It's a good school,” she said of the building she attended through sixth grade.
“They keep taking things out of town,” she said. “Pretty soon, we won't have anything in town.”
Elizabeth Morandini has seen what can happen when a school goes idle.
Her two children attended Gilpin Elementary School, and she worked there as a custodian.
Today, she lives next to the school, which sits unused. A number of proposed uses for the building have fallen through over the years.
Part of the building had been demolished. What remains appears in poor condition, although topped by a newer roof.
“It's an eyesore,” she said. “I'm kind of used to it now.”
The building is now basically a shell, Gilpin Supervisors Chairman Michael Steimer said.
There has been recent talk of the building being used for a nursing home, but he could not say who is behind it and the township has not been formally approached.
“It would be nice if somebody would put it to some use,” he said. “It would require a lot of investment at this point.”
Morandini said it was once a nice school, with a large yard for children to play in.
Now, the best thing she can say about it is that at least the grass gets cut.
“I hate to look at it sometimes,” she said. “I'd like to see something made of it to benefit the community.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or email@example.com.
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