What do you do with an empty school?
It's a vexing question, both for districts grappling with it and residents affected by the answer. At least three Long Island school districts are considering plans to sell vacant buildings to developers, proposals that have aroused varying levels of community anger.
Selling a school is never easy, given the competing forces at play.
Residents see schools as centers of their communities; closing one, they say, means a neighborhood loses its character and its history. Opponents of change are suspicious of new development; they fear what will follow the sale of a school. Meanwhile, superintendents and school boards struggle to make ends meet; selling a school, they argue, is a financial windfall.
There is no one solution that will fit all school districts. Each set of circumstances is different. But empty school buildings rarely serve anyone well.
Here's what's been learned from the disputes so far: School officials must make sure they include a skeptical public in the conversation from the start and explain clearly the rationale for selling. And residents must put aside their emotional connections and listen.
Fueling this drama is declining enrollment. Nearly two-thirds of Long Island's 124 public school districts are losing students. The overall decline is 4 percent over the last six years. In many districts, the drops are more severe. And the trend is likely to continue, experts say, citing declining birthrates, a shortage of rental and affordable housing for young couples, high property taxes and an ever-graying population.
While echo boomers -- the children of baby boomers -- are keeping high school numbers flush, enrollment declines largely are being driven by a drop in the number of younger students. The fallout has been striking.
In recent years, decisions have been made to close elementary schools in Mineola (two), Smithtown, West Islip, Baldwin (two), North Bellmore, Half Hollow Hills (two), Lawrence and Lindenhurst. Residents protested strongly in nearly every case.
Now Lindenhurst -- along with Seaford and Island Trees, which closed elementary schools years ago -- are trying to sell them. Each has touted the chance for real tax relief: a sale brings in immediate cash, eliminates maintenance costs and puts the property back on the tax rolls. If that were the only concern, selling would be a slam dunk for tax-weary homeowners and tax-capped school districts. But the three districts are discovering that other concerns can trump frustration with high taxes.
Take Seaford. Voters approved selling a long-shuttered elementary school to a developer who wants to build condos for seniors. The district would get $5.2 million from the sale, plus an estimated $1 million-plus annually in maintenance savings and new taxes. Some 56 percent of voters approved the referendum, but opponents who cited the density of the proposed complex and possible traffic and parking issues took the fight to Hempstead's town board, which must approve a zoning change for the sale to go through. The board, as usual testing the way the wind blows, has postponed its decision. Clearly, it should honor the will of the people as expressed in the vote. But the persistent resistance underscores just how difficult this is.
As more buildings close, more districts will face the issue, and the questions surrounding it. Will universal prekindergarten require more classrooms down the road? Do you sell, lease or repurpose the building? Will it be obsolete by the time it needs to be reopened?
In most cases, but not all, it will make sense to pursue a sale. Education on Long Island generally needs to get leaner and less expensive. But as this plays out, we have some wishes: That school officials consider community concerns. That residents listen to proposals with open minds. And that when difficult decisions must be made, facts and finances are the guiding forces, not emotion.