Lessons from the Headlines: Key Questions for Districts Attempting to Close Schools

November 2007

Newspapers across the country highlight stories of districts that need to close schools. While the causes of enrollment decline vary, none is surprising; demographic shifts, economic changes, and alternative schooling options all contribute. But declining enrollment starts districts on a path that touches many other parts of district operations. Because many states allocate money to districts based on student counts, declining enrollments often mean declining revenues. School districts, however, rarely structure their expenditures to fluctuate with enrollment. Non-teaching staff, central office administration, and building operations are treated as fixed costs, which yield higher costs per pupil as enrollment drops. This combination of declining enrollments and tight finances make school closures necessary, but concerns about the effects on students and strong community connections to neighborhood schools make closures difficult.

Making the decision to close schools is a difficult process. There is no "right way" to proceed. This brief touches on the experiences of urban school districts as they sought to close schools. It offers insight into the critical questions districts encountered and descriptions of different paths chosen during the closure process. These questions include:

    1. What is the financial bottom line?
    2. How do student outcomes fit in?
    3. What criteria are proposed to select schools for closure?
    4. How will the community be involved?
    5. Will the district leadership stay unified throughout the process?
    6. What is the transition plan and how is it communicated?

This paper was first published in the American School Board Journal.

Related Research: