Closing time for city schools 

Tucked away between Hickory and Gregory Streets in the city's South Wedge neighborhood sits a beautifully restored school. Students no longer attend classes here, though. The building's classrooms have been given new life as upscale condominiums. What was formerly an administrator's office was recently advertised for a price just south of six figures.

Reused buildings like these --- taken out of commission by the Rochester City School District --- can often become key anchors in a community whose children they once served, helping to bolster revitalization efforts.

"You have people who are living there now and who are probably buying stuff on South Avenue and are participating in the community," says Dan Buyer, executive Director of the South Wedge Planning Committee. "Plus you're getting the property back on the tax rolls," he says, an important step in the resurgence of any area.

The district will consider the possible afterlife of each of its buildings --- among many other factors --- as it begins to plan for its real estate needs.

And in about a month, officials will announce which schools they plan to close.

The last time the district did this, the ensuing outcry forced officials to partially back down from their stated plans. This time around, though, it's the silence that's been deafening. A series of public forums designed to give parents and community members input in the school-closure process have gone largely unattended.

"We're quite surprised that more people aren't paying attention," says the district's Chief Communications Officer Barbara Jarzyniecki. "We thought we'd get more people at these forums."

That's particularly perplexing to school officials, because more than just a year's round of closings is at stake. Even as it makes plans to close buildings in the coming year, the district is embarking on a long-term planning process (looking forward at least 10 years, possibly longer) for managing, upgrading, and in some cases jettisoning, its facilities.

For the 2004-2005 academic year, the Rochester City School District has an enrollment of 35,087 students. The district's figures show that number steadily declining over the next decade to a figure just above 28,000 in 2013-2014. Meanwhile, the state sets the total capacity of the district's 51 instructional buildings at 46,709, according to Director of Educational Facilities Tom Keysa. Ideally, the number of students and the space available would coincide for a perfect 100 percent usage rate, but "for all practical purposes, it's not an attainable number," says Keysa. The district aims for about 85 percent in its secondary schools and 90 percent at the elementary level, says Keysa before adding, "We're below those numbers."

In fact, the district is at about 75 percent. If the district's enrollment projections hold true and no buildings are closed, that figure will drop to 60 percent in a decade.

For a district desperate to save money using any means, those numbers might seem to tell the whole story. But that's not so, says Keysa, who's reluctant to dump any of the district's buildings just yet. Recently, he points out, all the elementary schools got separate spaces for art and music programs.

"That's something we want to see," he says.

Keysa may get his wish, at least in the short term. In order to undertake its ambitious plan to upgrade most of its buildings, the district will need so-called "swing space" --- buildings that can temporarily absorb the overflow of students from other schools that are closed for a year's worth of renovations. Closing a building, even for renovation, will save the district money, Keysa says.

But eventually, Keysa concedes, the district will likely have to close some schools permanently.

"There's a great deal of pressure that's starting to come into play politically to close buildings," he says. "I don't think, personally, that that'll be the wisest decision, initially." Misgivings aside, Keysa and the rest of the district are putting their faith in the process.

"It might just be very clear through this process that there is a need to close schools," he says.

Closure criteria

As of press time, these were the five tentative criteria city school district officials planned to use as they decide which buildings to renovate and which to shut down:

• Reuse potential: The district will weigh the benefits to local neighborhoods of reused school buildings --- for housing, recreation, business --- against the benefits of keeping those schools open.

• Overall state of buildings: The district will look at the age and structural soundness of school buildings in determining whether they could accommodate future expansion or renovation.

• Financial considerations: Some school buildings cost the district more to operate and maintain than others. School officials plan to crunch the numbers to find out which ones are likely to cost the district the most in the long term, accounting for future renovations and state aid for capital projects.

• Academic performance: Despite the school board's intent to evaluate the district's academic programs and buildings separately, current ratings in core subjects, like math and English, and their trends will play a role in the decision-making process.

• Student enrollment: Using birth-rate data, enrollment trends, and the popularity of each school (through school-choice data), officials will try to establish patterns that will predict which buildings and neighborhoods will have the most demand for class space.

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