Reformer ToolboxLogin

CancelLost your password?

School dilemma: Empty space and big bucks

• Mike Thomas

We have built public school houses all across America at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

So what becomes of that investment as more and more students exit these schools for charters and other options, leaving a spate of empty space in their wake?

A school that operates under capacity still has to heat and air condition the buildings, mop the floors, repair the roofs and so on. These costs then are divided among fewer students, increasing operations cost per student. This leads to politically unpopular decisions to close schools or redraw attendance boundaries.

In Chicago, about 140 traditional public schools are half empty, which eventually will lead to massive closures, even as charter schools continue to expand.

As charters grow, they begin asking for more funding for capital expenses, with the logical source being money that goes to the capital programs of traditional school districts.

This battle is well underway in Florida, where lawmakers are trying to come up with a funding solution for both. A task force set up by the Legislature contemplated a plan that would allow districts to raise property taxes and share the proceeds with charters.

But the districts balk at that, with school boards unwilling to raise money for what amounts to the competition. Some charter schools have argued that they should receive property tax revenues paid by the parents of their students.

This gets to the bigger issue of defining public education. School districts naturally would like to monopolize the title, meaning any money taken away from them amounts to money taken away from public education.

But will that hold as more and more parents choose charters or voucher schools, and begin demanding equal resources for their children?

As for now, the task force set up by the Florida Legislature has been unable to resolve the capital funding issue, meaning it will be punted to lawmakers in the next legislative session.

There was a time when Florida couldn’t build schools fast enough. Overcrowding became such a big issue that school concurrency laws became a key tool in growth management. In some areas, charters were welcome to help relieve the pressure.

But now growth has slowed considerably and the competition between traditional public schools and charters is heating up.

Another headache for school districts is they don’t know how to plan for charters when deciding where to build a school and how big to build it.

Let’s say they construct or renovate a school to hold 1,000 students based on the projected population within the school attendance boundary.  And two years later, a charter opens down the road and takes away 250 students.

District could build more flexible campuses by making greater use of portable classrooms. This way schools could easily expand or shrink based on enrollment. If a charter opens and takes students, they could remove classrooms. If a charter closes and a bunch of students show up at the front door, they could add classrooms.

But portables are politically unpopular, even if the teachers often love them, meaning school board members shy away from them.

This certainly is the case in Orange County, Fl., which undertook a major school renovation program in 2002 after residents approved a half-penny increase in the sales tax. One of the campaign points was the elimination of portable classrooms. Now Orange must maintain all these new facilities, which will not be cheap.

Orange and neighboring Seminole County, which has 9,000 empty seats in its schools, have both started customer service marketing campaigns aimed at keeping their students. It’s a strategy other school districts will have to copy as charter enrollment grows.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at