Western Pa. districts find it tricky to sell off shuttered schools
By Tory N. Parrish
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 6:20 p.m.
When the former West Mifflin Area Middle School starred in a movie, the school district got in on the action.
The district earned $7,000 a day from a movie production company for allowing “Foxcatcher,” with actor Channing Tatum, to be filmed for 10 days last year at the former school on Camp Hollow Road.
The district made the same amount for allowing “Promised Land” to be filmed there last year, Superintendent Daniel Castagna said.
Still, the building, shuttered in January 2012, and New England Elementary School on Clairton Road, closed last summer, are for sale for $3.6 million and $1.2 million, respectively.
Castagna said that concern about education funding and reduced property assessments means that “it's just a smart financial decision, as a business decision, to sell the properties.”
Like many districts with shrinking enrollment and/or old schools for which repair isn't cost effective, West Mifflin Area is trying to generate money from empty buildings.
Some districts are finding that unloading schools is not as simple as listing them with real estate agents.
Municipal rezoning regulations can create roadblocks, and the location of schools can deter buyers. Uncertainty over enrollment can make school boards apprehensive about selling assets, school officials said.
Between June 2005 and July, 528 public school buildings closed in the state. Between January 2005 and July, 346 buildings opened. There are 3,025 public schools in Pennsylvania currently, according to the state Department of Education.
In 2011, Penn Hills School District sold William Penn and Shenandoah elementary schools after closing them in 2008, and it intends to close its three remaining elementary schools as part of a plan to consolidate students into one centrally located center that it will build for $38 million, said Richard Liberto, director of business affairs.
One reason for the consolidation is a decline in enrollment because charter schools have siphoned students and some of the districts' funds.
Districts are struggling with the impact of charter schools in several ways. Some find that even as the charters become solid customers for old buildings, the overall benefit of those sales remains in question.
For example, Imagine Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship bought William Penn on Penn School Drive for about $300,000, Liberto said.
“You're selling a building for $300,000 and next year, turning around and paying that same entity $1.1 million in tuition. So who wins here?” he asked.
Redeemer Lutheran School bought Shenandoah for about $200,000.
In the Gateway School District, Pitcairn Elementary closed in 2011, and Pitcairn purchased the building last year. It leases it to Propel Pitcairn, and Gateway must pay tuition to Propel for its students who attend the charter.
Propel Schools leases Propel North Side from Pittsburgh Public Schools. The building used to be Columbus Middle School.
A recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts noted that Pittsburgh Public, which is trying to sell 25 buildings, is using techniques it said should be effective to sell them. That includes hiring Fourth River Development to handle sales at a cost of $10,000 a month.
Closing schools can garner much-needed savings for cash-strapped districts, such as Wilkinsburg, which saved $500,000 this year in staffing, utilities and other costs by closing Johnston Elementary School the past summer and transferring 180 students to Turner and Kelly elementary schools.
Johnston has been for sale for about a month for $600,000, said Philip Martell, assistant director of business affairs.
As districts close buildings to save in the long run, they recognize that doing so comes with a financial hit that administrators hope is short term.
West Mifflin Area officials expect to spend $47,300 annually on utilities and lawn maintenance at its two closed schools, Business Manager Dennis Cmar said.
To speed sales, it sought to have the schools rezoned from residential to commercial, but last month the West Mifflin planning commission denied a request to recommend the rezoning to borough council.
The commission said New England is too landlocked by residential property to be rezoned for commercial use.
The commission told the district that if it finds a buyer for the middle school, it can apply for conditional-use approval for certain low-traffic commercial developments.
In the Highlands School District, administrators in December put the closed Heights Early Childhood Center in Harrison and its administration center up for sale. The district has a sales agreement with RBG Development, which plans to buy the Heights building for $1 million to convert into a gas station, contingent upon receiving rezoning approval from Harrison, said Jon Rupert, business manager and board secretary.
Rupert, who said the district would pay about $8,000 annually for upkeep at Heights and $6,000 for the administration center, warned against people making the assumption that selling a school will bring a windfall to shaky budgets.
“School code prevents that. If you have outstanding debt, you have to use it for that or maintenance or other capital outlays,” he said.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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