When students left the shut-down Wilson Middle School last year, the building wasn't without activity, according to Daelyne Starks.
"You've got litter, you've got bugs, you've got transients," said Starks, who lives a block away. The property at East 11th Street and South Columbia Avenue was among 10 elementary and middle school buildings shuttered by a May 2011 school board vote, part of a school district move tied in part to declining enrollment in some schools.
Starks described grounds that sprouted tall weeds, a place where maybe once or twice a month after dark she would drive by and spot "ladies of the night" -- sometimes alone, sometimes with men Starks could only presume to be clients.
But several weeks ago, a police car showed up, and she noticed a "Beware of Dog" sign posted in a window, Starks said. After being vacant for a year, the site will again be teeming with students in the fall with the relocation of Mayo Demonstration school to the site. Renovations will also allow district professional development staff to call the building home in the upcoming school year.
One building may be filling up, but the former Mayo school site now sits for sale. Finding buyers for vacant properties has proven to be a challenge for Tulsa Public Schools, though one building declared a surplus property has been sold for $1.5 million.
Overall, the difficulty in moving the properties is a situation far from unique to Tulsa. Researchers who examined the fate of vacant school buildings in six cities concluded in a 2011 report that "selling
or leasing surplus school buildings, many of which are located in declining neighborhoods, tends to be extremely difficult."
Unused buildings eat into a school district's bottom line and affect the community around the vacant property. "If left unused for long, the buildings can become eyesores that cast a pall over neighborhoods and attract vandalism and other illicit activity," noted researchers with the Philadelphia Research Initiative, a part of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
In Tulsa, to follow state law related to surplus school district real estate, Tulsa Public Schools had an appraisal done on each vacant building, with the value kept secret. Bids were then sought, with the district making sure to "notify anyone who has contacted us who is interested in property," said Trish Williams, chief financial officer for the district.
Many of the properties received bids, but all but one have been rejected by the district, mostly because they fell too far below the appraised value, Williams said.
In the short run, closing schools has still led to a savings of about $2.7 million because of staff attrition, Williams said, emphasizing that no teachers were laid off. She said the district projected a potential savings of about $5 million based on the sale of the vacant properties.
"Over time, we'll be able to reinvest that savings back into our schools," Williams said.
Researchers who studied vacant school buildings suggest that's far from money in the bank, however. "No district has reaped anything like a windfall from such transactions," they noted in the Pew report.
Vacant buildings pose a cost to the district.
"Since all of the buildings haven't been sold, we still have to maintain those, we still have to have security at those, we still have to have utilities," Williams said. She said she was unable to immediately separate many of those costs from other portions of the district's budget.
Larry Eichel led the group that studied school closings, spurred by actions undertaken by the public school system in Philadelphia.
Researchers noted that many city school districts face declining enrollment, but declines in Tulsa don't begin to compare with declines in other cities.
In Tulsa enrollment declined about 5 percent from 2001 to 2010, according to the district; by comparison, enrollment in Kansas City, Missouri declined by 42 percent from the 2000-2001 school year to the 2010-2011 school year.
As far as vacant buildings, Eichel said districts take different approaches to the problem. In Kansas City, tours of vacant schools were given to solicit ideas from the public and potential investors. The report notes that "real estate disposition is not a core skill for most school districts."
Tulsa Public Schools may seek help in marketing their buildings, Williams said. Under consideration is a plan to hire a commercial real estate broker. If that happens, the district would publish a formal request for proposals and the hire would have to be approved by the school board, Williams said.
Milwaukee school officials sold a building to be used for senior housing, and researchers described the occasional housing development or mixed-use project.
Such uses can be rare, however. In commercial real estate, location matters. "School buildings in areas that are growing and thriving generally don't get closed," Eichel said.
While Williams acknowledged that location can be an issue for some prospective buyers, "I think the bigger challenge for us has been the economy," she said. "It's a difficult market right now. These are specialized facilities, so that combination, plus not all the locations are desirable for all potential purchasers, yeah, that's a challenge."
Not surprisingly, buildings have been reused for educational purposes. Williams said the former Fulton Teaching and Learning Academy, which sold for $1.5 million, will house the private Town and Country School, and negotiations are ongoing with the nonprofit Community Action Project about the Mayo school site, which might be used as an early-childhood education center.
Another option is to keep the buildings but find new uses for them, as was done with Wilson.
"I like the fact that they're using an old building," Starks said, her complaint now that she's unable to send her five-year-old son to attend because enrollment is by lottery for Mayo.
The district also rejected a bid on the shuttered Roosevelt Elementary School property, instead choosing to adapt it for district reuse as office space. Other moves this year involved closing schools to move them into school buildings that had been shuttered for a year. Two other schools, Barnard Elementary School and Greeley Elementary, are being rented out to charter schools. Barnard sat vacant for a year, while Greely just shut down at the end of the most recent school year.
After the moves, eight properties are officially listed as surplus sites, either vacant or used for storage, though sales negotiations are active for the former sites of the Mayo school and Sequoyah Elementary School, according to the district
In some cities, buildings have been demolished, Eichel said. Williams said there's only a "remote possibility" of that happening in Tulsa.
"I'm really hopeful that we can identify a buyer who has that certain need that our buildings would fit," she said.
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