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Old School Buildings: Prehistoric or Worth Preserving?

A report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) makes a case for renovating old school buildings instead of razing them. Although demolition might be the wisest choice in some instances, the NTHP offers resources for helping school boards decide whether to raze or renovate. Education World spoke with members of three communities that have faced that dilemma. Included: Resources from the NTHP and the National Clearinghouse on Educational Facilities.

Raze or Renovate?

In the report Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can't Walk to School, the National Trust for Historic Preservation offered recommendations to help school districts and communities make wise choices when answering the "Prehistoric or worth preserving?" question.

* Eliminate funding biases that favor new construction.
* Eliminate arbitrary acreage standards that undermine the ability of established communities to retain and upgrade older schools.
* Avoid building massive schools in remote locations that stimulate sprawl.
* Encourage school districts to cooperate with other institutions to share playgrounds and parking areas.
* Establish guidelines to ensure adequate school building maintenance.
* Require feasibility studies comparing the costs of new schools with the costs of renovating existing schools.
* Ensure that a minimum of 50 percent of the students can walk or bike to school.
* When a school is no longer suitable for teaching kids, make plans for an adaptive use.
* Provide education in school-renovation techniques.

What is the significance of razing an older school building? A national report suggests there is a lot at stake and that school districts considering demolition over renovation should take a second glance at the numbers. The report cites examples from around the country to suggest that rehabilitating older buildings is possible -- even preferable -- without breaking the bank.

That's not the route many school districts take, however. When faced with bankrolling extensive renovations to older schools, the easy -- and in some cases less expensive -- way to go is to construct a new building altogether. Older schools often lack proper wiring for technology and do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. New schools, some believe, create better learning environments too.

Newer is not always better, though. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) compiled a 52-page report, Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can't Walk to School (see sidebar), that underscores what communities lose when they raze historic schools and replace them with new state-of-the-art complexes.

Schools that dot downtown areas have become a beacon of economic vitality, according to the report. In Billings, Montana, for example, PTA President Ann L. Clancy thinks of the Broadwater Elementary School as a repository of the neighborhood's history and heritage. "These schools were built at a critical time when Billings was growing and starting to thrive. They represent a different way of life -- a time when schools were 'right there' in the neighborhood." she said.

Clancy drives past the schoolyard these days and honks her car horn when she sees her daughter outside playing. "Older and historic schools tend to be smaller, more 'high touch,' and easier to interact with. They are from an era when neighborhoods had an identity," Clancy explained. "They anchor neighborhoods."

According to the NTHP report, when a district abandons a historic school, the new school often goes up on the outskirts of town. The move from the neighborhood creates an emotional -- as well as actual -- distance between the town and its school, between kids and families and their schools. Kids can't walk to school, which adds to the busing expense line in the district's budget.

Razing a downtown school doesn't usually result in a space large enough to meet current zoning codes for constructing a new school on the site. In Billings, the site standards call for 1 acre for every 100 students plus 10 acres for an elementary school, 25 acres for a middle school, and 35 acres for a high school. To do that in downtown Billings would mean knocking out six city blocks, according to the NTHP report.

Zoning codes such as those in Billings, along with state funding formulas, push districts to construct rather than renovate, the NHTP believes.

Image Broadwater Elementary School was built in 1909. It is located in an historic, established neighborhood adjacent to downtown Billings. The school has the high ceilings, large windows, and solid masonry and concrete construction typical of that time.

Since 1998, four historic schools in Billings have been targeted for possible closure because of the district's need to respond to declining neighborhood enrollments, which corresponds to lower state aid, Clancy said. "Some members [of the school board] believe that to build a new school, it is necessary to close an older school in an area of declining enrollment," she added.

In Billings, Clancy said, diminishing funds force the school board to decide between setting aside money to renovate older buildings or buying textbooks and teaching materials. "As you can imagine, maintenance is often deferred on older and historic buildings, which further contributes to the bias that old buildings are not good learning environments or that new is always better," she explained.


The NHTP added historic neighborhood schools to its annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. According to the report, the list was created to "alert the public to various threats to these irreplaceable community landmarks." The report cites multiple examples of struggles over whether to rehabilitate schools or build anew.

"The National Trust does not argue that every historic school building can be or even should be preserved. Many such schools can be -- and have been -- however, and we believe that school districts often dismiss renovation options too quickly," said Constance Beaumont, NHTP director of state and local policy and one of the authors of the report. Beaumont does say that neighborhood schools are the "glue" that can tie neighborhoods together.

The report argues that a school's age does not automatically point to demolition. People should value its characteristics and place in the community. "Schools were once thought of as important civic landmarks built to last a century. They represented community investments that inspired civic pride and participation in public life," said Richard Moe, NTHP president. "Many of today's newer schools resemble big-box warehouses. Their architecture reflects little pride, and they sometimes have a life-span of a mere 30 years."

The report also refers to studies that indicate that students learn best when the school is central to the life and learning of the community.


One roadblock to preserving older school buildings, the report states, is the so-called "60 percent rule." That rule of thumb commands that if the cost of renovating an older school exceeds 60 percent of the cost of a new school, the school district should build a new school if the district wants to receive financial assistance from the state.

"The problem with such arbitrary percentage rules is that they prevent a full cost analysis by state and local governments and arbitrarily eliminate sound renovation projects. Certain new construction costs -- items such as land acquisition, water and sewer line extensions, transportation and road work, for example -- may not be factored into the comparison," the report states. "If those costs were considered, renovation projects might meet the percentage rule more easily."

Beaumont believes we are at the beginning of a shift toward preserving older school buildings. "Many historic schools are stunningly beautiful structures and thus a source of pride to the community," she said. "When people are proud of their community, they are usually more willing to stay and invest in it."


Image Among the preservation success stories cited in the NTHP report is Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The school was built in 1923 on the shore of Lake Michigan, one of the community's older residential areas.

"Lincoln High is such a community landmark that the board of education never considered replacing it," said Joan Graff, the school district's public information specialist. "Generations of citizens consider it their school." Instead of razing Lincoln, the community invested $15 million in large-scale infrastructure upgrades and cosmetic changes in 1999. The preservation keeps the character of the original structure while supporting the educational needs of 21st-century students, Graff said.

The Manitowoc school district has had it both ways. Another school in the district, Jefferson Elementary School, was built in 1887 and rebuilt in 1934. Community members acknowledged that Jefferson did not have the same characteristics or inspire sentiment that Lincoln High School did. The school was a "fire trap," according to some people in the community. In 1996, the community razed the school and constructed a new school on the same site.

Jefferson Elementary could not be upgraded to meet codes or be made accessible for people with disabilities, Graff said. "Frankly, it was not a safe environment for students and staff." Although the public agreed that the school had to go, there was a strong push to keep the new school in the neighborhood.

"The rebuilt Jefferson has meant a lot to the neighborhood," Graff told Education World. "Once this neighborhood had a broken-down school that was dingy and unattractive; it now has a beautiful new structure that elevates the entire neighborhood."


In rural Claremont, New Hampshire, a city of 13,000 people, the school board faced the question of what to do with three almost 100-year-old elementary schools nestled deep inside neighborhoods. Around 1995, the district created a plan to construct additions on some newer elementary schools and close the three older ones.

According to board chairwoman Candace Crawford, the historic significance of the buildings did not come into play when the district voted to spend $6.6 million on the consolidation plan. The cost of renovating the buildings was becoming astronomical and would probably get worse. "The buildings needed so much work," she said.

North Street and Way Schools were deeded to the city for $1; today, those buildings house a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center office and Head Start respectively. The additions to Maple Avenue, Disnard, and Bluff Elementary Schools and Claremont Middle School meant that pupils would be bused farther, but they represented the relief of what was becoming a liability to the school district.

Crawford believes there would have been more of an outcry if the board had suggested demolishing the historic buildings.

On the other hand, the district has entertained notions of building a new high school on the outskirts of the city, but the alumni association, the oldest in the country, has a strong attachment to the downtown location of Stevens High School.

In 1998, the Stevens High School staff was left scrambling for classroom space after chunks of ceiling fell into the auditorium. After extensive work on the roof and ceiling, the board toyed with the idea of relocating the high school. There was no way to tear down the school and build a new facility on the site because of what Crawford calls a "postage-stamp" sized lot. "We certainly couldn't use [that lot] for a school," said Crawford. "Stevens certainly is a center point. It is an important part of the town."



Updated 10/09/2013