In Kansas City, a lesson in transforming closed schools

By: 
Kalyn Belsha


By many measures, Kansas City, Missouri, and Chicago are similar. Both are sprawling Midwestern cities with shrinking school districts marred by long histories of racial segregation, funding woes and leadership turnover. But when the districts closed dozens of schools in low-income African-American neighborhoods, they had starkly different approaches to reusing the empty buildings.

Chicago, which shuttered 50 schools four years ago, turned over the reuse process to aldermen, many of whom didn’t include the public in planning the buildings’ future. With dozens of vacant schools and widespread criticism for not involving residents in the process, Chicago recently ended aldermen’s control of school reuse and handed it back to the school district, which put the buildings up for bid this month.

Kansas City Public Schools, on the other hand, hired an urban planner to manage school reuse. The process has been praised for prioritizing community engagement, transparency and giving nonprofits with limited access to capital the chance to buy a school. Kansas City emphasized finding quality new uses for the schools over generating revenue for the district, which closed half its schools from 2009 to 2010. The Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit that advocates for big-city districts, will feature the district in a report of best practices for repurposing schools.

Jacob Wagner, an associate professor of urban studies and design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, who studied the repurposing effort, says a strength of the process was the multiple opportunities for community input.

“Each school has a set of proponents who were engaged in the redevelopment process because people ultimately want to see those buildings reused, they don’t want to see them demolished and they don’t want to see them sit empty,” Wagner said. “There were a lot of community leaders who really jumped in.”

Finding new uses for closed schools has become an important national issue as cities across the country, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, have shuttered hundreds of schools—a trend that’s expected to continue. Chicago’s closure was the largest at one time of any district in the nation.

In a 2011 study of Chicago, Kansas City and four other school districts that had recently closed at least 20 public schools, The Pew Charitable Trusts found the most common reasons for closures were declining enrollment, deteriorating or outdated facilities and tight budgets. The study traced falling enrollment to dwindling school-age populations and increased alternatives to traditional public schools, such as charter schools and government-funded vouchers for private schools. Poor academic performance was also a rationale.

The national inventory of closed schools is growing. In a 2013 study, Pew found 301 unused properties for sale in a dozen city school districts. The same 12 districts had sold or reused 34 fewer properties over the prior seven years.

Reuse efforts are affected by real-estate markets, how long schools sit empty and local laws and policies, but there are certain strategies that can improve sales. The 2013 Pew study reported: “Officials dealing with surplus buildings say that districts should move aggressively to sell or lease facilities soon after they become empty, make information readily accessible to prospective buyers and the public… and, when possible, get outside help in determining appropriate uses of the properties and how they fit with the overall needs of the city.”

Kansas City followed that blueprint to a T; Chicago did not.

Community input and transparency

To overcome a legacy of distrust in communities of color, Kansas City Public Schools worked to get buy-in for the closures in the neighborhoods.

KCPS isn’t the only district within the city’s limits. As Kansas City grew and annexed land, it created new school districts for wealthier, white students. Children living in the city’s urban core were confined to KCPS. Over the last 15 years, the district shrank by more than half, following decades of continued enrollment declines. The city’s mass closures were largely seen as the result of poor governance and school board inaction.

Despite the situation, the 2011 Pew study found the city’s closing process “was among the best-received by the public, with little bad feeling evident even after the district closed half of its schools in two years” because communities realized the closures were necessary.

That continued as the district developed plans for the schools’ reuse. In 2011, the school district hired Shannon Jaax, an urban planner with a background in community development, to oversee the repurposing of 30 schools, many of which were recently closed and located in low-income black neighborhoods on the city’s east side.

Jaax held several community meetings and public tours of each vacant school before it went up for sale, followed by more public meetings each time there was a serious proposal to buy the building. Residents and potential buyers could rely on staff in the district’s repurposing office for help and had easy access to detailed school reports to guide ideas about reuse. To help communities determine if a proposal was any good, the school district weighed the pros and cons of each idea and gave a detailed analysis to residents, whose feedback ultimately informed the nine-member school board’s vote.

“They didn’t just say ‘OK, you don’t have no money, so we don’t want to talk to you. Goodbye … They said: ‘We want to hear your story. How do you plan to do this? How do you see this working?’” – Karen Allen, Kansas City resident

Brenda Thomas heads the Marlborough Community Coalition, which represents an area that includes a closed elementary school. In the past, Thomas said, the school district didn’t have a specific outreach plan and communities weren’t very involved in repurposing efforts.

“[I thought], ‘This is a bureaucrat from the school district that’s not gonna talk about very much and we’re going to have a few meetings and that’s the end of that,’” Thomas said. “Then go your way and [the district will] make the decision … [T]hese schools in Kansas City have been sitting for years and years. There wasn’t as an aggressive, open process or a collegial process in trying to repurpose these schools [before].”

Thomas realized the district was doing things differently when she started receiving calls, texts and emails “at every turn” from the repurposing staff. The frequent updates helped maintain trust and ensured the community stayed involved.

Jaax says updating the repurposing effort’s website remained a priority. There, residents and community groups can find minutes from meetings and site tours, as well as documents that provide information about each school site, compile community feedback and explain the reuse strategy for each school. Community meetings are posted weeks in advance on the website, as well as on the initiative’s Facebook page.

Chicago’s process was opaque. Each alderman involved and informed community members as he or she saw fit; many didn’t hold meetings at all. There was no central point of contact for residents, and repurposing meetings were posted sporadically, making it difficult for communities to plan ahead. Chicago Public Schools didn’t keep records of the meetings, and the district’s repurposing website lacks any documents about proposals for the schools.

David Desai-Ramirez, who oversees Missouri efforts for IFF, a nonprofit lender that has financed school repurposing projects in several cities, said taking time to compile information about each school and then centralizing the information is crucial. It prevents communities and buyers from wasting precious time, he said.

“When that website isn’t there, I’ll talk to the alderman, he’ll love my idea and we’ll spend a year having random stakeholder meetings,” Desai-Ramirez explained. “Then, a year later, we’ll find out the usage doesn’t make sense.”

Creative financing

Camilla Cochran (left) and Mildred Walker host a community radio program that broadcasts from the second floor of a Kansas City closed school that was purchased by the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center.

Photo by Dave Kaup

Camilla Cochran (left) and Mildred Walker host a community radio program that broadcasts from the second floor of a Kansas City closed school that was purchased by the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center.

One of the roadblocks to buying a large public building is having enough money to make a viable offer. In Kansas City, school officials worked on financing with potential buyers and other government agencies to make school reuse more likely.

The approach has helped fill buildings in lower-income African-American neighborhoods, where it’s especially important that vacant schools become resources for the community again. The neighborhoods are already struggling with high vacancy rates and less economic opportunity; a repurposed school can help stabilize the surrounding area.

The school district got the city to pledge needed funds; that allowed a nonprofit and a developer to secure a state-funded tax credit for low-income housing. The result was affordable senior housing in a closed elementary school on the city’s east side. Before the city stepped up, the community had tried to find a buyer for many years and the school had been at risk of being demolished, Jaax said.

In another case, the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center bought a school in a predominantly low-income black neighborhood this past summer after leasing it for three years. The nonprofit offers tutoring in math and reading, and runs one of the few technology programs in the city’s urban core. Because the center didn’t have money to buy the school outright, the district agreed to apply lease payments and volunteer hours toward the purchase price. In return, the nonprofit will complete 5,500 tutoring hours in KCPS schools. Jaax called the arrangement a “no-brainer.”

The repurposing staff has been “supportive, helpful in how can we get this done, which makes a big difference,” said Deana Ervin, the nonprofit’s executive director.

A mile southeast of the tutoring center, Karen Allen noticed a vacant school when she was visiting her nearby childhood home. She knew the school well; she’d once worked with pregnant teens there as a therapist. She thought it would be the perfect space to relocate her day facility, where she serves low-income adults with developmental and physical disabilities.

She called the phone number on the for-sale sign, knowing very little about the process to acquire a school. Jaax and her staff were open to her proposal, even though she didn’t have funds to purchase the building. They agreed last year that Allen would lease the building, with the option to buy it within five years.

“They didn’t just say ‘OK, you don’t have no money, so we don’t want to talk to you. Goodbye,’” Allen said. “They said: ‘We want to hear your story. How do you plan to do this? How do you see this working?’”

The repurposing staff supported Allen at key steps, making initial contact with the neighborhood association and accompanying her to a city council meeting to seek a zoning change.

CPS requirements and state bidding laws make it difficult for buyers without much capital to buy a Chicago school. Illinois law says CPS property worth at least $25,000 must go up for a public bid. One of the highest, most qualified bidders gets the building. For its empty schools, the district is requiring a 10 percent down payment with the balance due at closing—making a lease-to-own arrangement impossible. Missouri law, on the other hand, allows Kansas City to negotiate directly with nonprofits or to issue a public bid.

Mike Nardini, a vice president at the firm CBRE, which is helping CPS sell its empty schools, said he has fielded “tons” of questions from nonprofits and church groups about whether they can pay in installments or buy the schools for $1. “The answer is no,” he said.

To give nonprofits and community groups a better chance, CPS could have lobbied legislators to change state law—as it did successfully in 2013 to push back the announcement of which schools would close—or been more flexible with financing.  (Opponents argue that it’s important that buyers have capital upfront to ensure the idea doesn’t fall through.)

Closed Kansas City schools purchased by nonprofits have become centers of community. In Ervin’s building, a community radio station broadcasts from the second floor, local sports teams practice and community groups use the space in exchange for helping out with chores.

Another east side school that became a community center rents space to local churches and to a nonprofit that serves food to the homeless.

“These are not easy projects, it takes time for groups to get financing together to get them done,” Jaax said. “There really does need to be a sense of urgency so that the buildings can stay in as best shape as they possibly can, so more groups have the capacity to take on a project.”

Reuse over revenue

Deana Ervin is the executive director of the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, which bought a shuttered school on Kansas City’s east side after leasing it for three years.

Photo by Dave Kaup

Deana Ervin is the executive director of the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, which bought a shuttered school on Kansas City’s east side after leasing it for three years.

Jaax looked to balance community dreams for empty schools with the realities of real estate markets. It was a break from the past when brokers alone dictated how schools were repurposed.

Wagner at the University of Missouri-Kansas City says this approach meant the district had to adapt to the “very different neighborhood contexts” of each school.

In Chicago, most of the sales prior to the recent mass sale were on the whiter, wealthier North Side or in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Unlike Chicago’s school district, KCPS isn’t controlled by the mayor, and its city council had little say in what happened to the vacant schools. As a result, the repurposing effort was less politicized.

Elected school board members can afford to be more supportive of what communities want than those appointed by a mayor, said Carl Evans, a former Kansas City principal and teacher who now sits on the school board. Just taking the highest price is “not something that we do,” he said.

“When you’re elected, you’re at the mercy of the people,” said Evans, who represents an area on the city’s predominantly African-American east side.

Less focused on generating revenue than Chicago Public Schools, KCPS has made comparatively little money on its school sales. Fourteen buildings sold for $6.5 million, Jaax said. In Chicago, nine schools sold for $24 million.

CPS ignored a mayoral committee’s recommendation to use proceeds from school sales to help buyers purchase schools in lower-income neighborhoods. Kansas City reinvested money from the sale of its schools to pay for staff, building assessments and, eventually, demolitions of a few heavily damaged schools. CPS put its money toward building new schools and expanding and repairing existing ones; those on the receiving end tended to be disproportionately white, middle-class and far from the neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the closures.

The Chicago district will probably deal with another wave of school closures and consolidations soon, as a five-year moratorium on closures expires next year. High schools will be the big question: None were closed in 2013 due to fears about the safety of students crossing gang lines. Already, there are plans for a new $75 million South Side high school, likely in Englewood, that would replace several existing high schools with low enrollment.

Eve Ewing, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, is writing a book about the 2013 school closures. During interviews for the book, she was surprised by how many people said they’d be open to school closures if they truly had a say in the process. They also would want top school officials to acknowledge that the district’s long history of segregation led to enrollment declines in certain parts of the city and to develop a more equitable approach to closing schools.

Nothing will change, she added, unless officials are more transparent and put in the work to restore communities’ trust—much as Kansas City did.

“Duping people or giving people these explanations that any logical person can see don’t make any sense … is just not the way to do it,” Ewing said. “All it does is pave the way for people to have a continually lower sense of trust and belief in our elected officials.”

This story was supported with a grant from The Chicago Headline Club and is the second in a series of stories that examines the impact, four years later, of closing 50 Chicago public schools. If you are a parent whose child was affected by the closures, share your story with Kalyn at kbelsha@chicagoreporter.com.

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