W.Pa. districts join struggle to sell shuttered schools

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Hallways inside the two-story, brick building that once housed Donora Elementary are silent, having hosted its last students two years ago.

Ringgold School District officials in Washington County hope to find a new life for the old structure as well as another mothballed school in Monongahela.

“They are beautiful buildings, beautiful structures,” said Superintendent Karen Polkabla, who is helping school board members decide whether to seek sealed bids, conduct a private sale or put the buildings up for public auction.

Selling former schools can prove challenging, given the buildings' age, size and their narrow market. Finding new uses for these buildings also can be daunting, according to a report released this year by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit that focuses on public policy and community service issues.

“The act of selling a school building does not guarantee success of reuse, just change of ownership,” said Emily Dowdall, a Pew senior associate who authored the report. “But the more sharing there is of these success stories, the better chance there will be other success stories.”

The number of schools sold or for sale in the state is unknown, as the Pennsylvania Department of Education does not track such transactions.

Districts in Western Pennsylvania with schools for sale or soon to be include Highlands, Kiski and Freeport areas in the Alle-Kiski Valley and Plum.

Derry Area School District in Westmoreland County last year reached a deal to sell six-decade-old Loyalhanna Elementary and its 7.24 acres to a Youngstown company for $190,000. The school closed in 2011.

Pittsburgh Public Schools has 19 former school properties on the market and recently closed the sale of the iconic former Schenley High School, which shut its doors in 2008. Developers plan to convert the North Oakland property into market-rate housing.

Pittsburgh school board members in August approved a potential deal to sell McCleary Elementary School in Lawrenceville. A developer plans to turn into apartments, said Pat Morosetti, sales and leasing manager for Fourth River Development, the company hired to find buyers for Pittsburgh's shuttered schools.

“We anticipate others to follow within a couple of months,” Morosetti said. “There are serious interested parties on several other schools.”

New uses for former city schools mostly have centered on housing projects, Morosetti said. But other possibilities raised by developers have included charter schools, incubator spaces for small businesses and boutique hotels, he said.

Churches have expressed interest in reusing Ringgold's empty schools for religious purposes as well as community centers and medical clinics, Polkabla said.

The Pew study examined school-building sales from 2005-12 in urban areas, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Other cities included Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, St. Louis, Tulsa, Okla., and Washington.

It found that the 12 districts sold, leased or reused 267 buildings in that period — including 13 in Pittsburgh — and that 327 more remain unused.

Most buildings sold for between $200,000 and $1 million, the study found.

“That often was well below what the districts first projected,” Dowdall said.

Schenley sold this year for $5.2 million. Values for the Ringgold properties came in at $110,000 to $150,000, which were significantly lower than school officials anticipated. One assessment estimated a value of $530,000 for the two.

Some buildings sold during the report period became tutoring centers, community college buildings, or market-rate and affordable housing, but some more unique reuses included a movie theater, a taxi dispatch center and a police station, Dowdall said.

The fact that these buildings were built with taxpayers' money and often are centrally located within communities means there is more of a sense of neighborhood and civic ownership than with privately owned properties, she said.

Pittsburgh school officials made community involvement part of its bid process for that reason, Morosetti said.

“They recognize these assets play a significant role in the future of some of these communities,” he said. “They're not being single-minded in selling these properties. We want to sell to responsible buyers.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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