Too few students, too much land
New study of school facilities suggests selling extra property
For the fourth time in four years, a study done for Portland Public Schools leaders has detailed an obvious problem: The district has too much property.
And too many buildings that have little or nothing to do with schooling. All of the property sucks district money Ñ $1 million to $2 million per year, by conservative estimates Ñ away from the teaching of children.
But the most recent study of school district property Ñ a draft of which was released last week Ñ also offers compelling details about an issue no one around the Portland school district much likes to talk about: that the district might have too many schools. And that some of them might need to be closed.
The study, called a 'long-range facilities plan' and conducted for the district by a local nonprofit group called Innovation Partnership, seems to have increased momentum toward the easier district actions: selling or leasing its land or properties that don't house schools.
It's less clear how the study's details of some roomy elementary schools Ñ some with a classroom for every 10 students Ñ will steer discussion surrounding the explosive issue of closing any of the city's popular neighborhood schools.
'It is the most difficult thing a school board member can do,' Portland school board member Marc Abrams said. 'In school politics, everything is personal. Everything is about someone's kids, and that makes it very tough for us to make hard decisions.'
Abrams is the only member of the Portland school board who repeatedly says that with the district's continually declining enrollment, some of Portland's elementary schools need to be closed. He said he believes Ñ like some other district watchers do Ñ that the Innovation Partnership study only bolsters that view. Other school board members say they aren't so sure.
There is more agreement surrounding other actions suggested in the Innovation Partnership study, many of which have been recommended before. The study recommends the district sell or lease land and buildings that don't house schools Ñ properties that critics say should have long ago been generating income for the district instead of adding maintenance costs.
One of the study's primary authors, Innovation Partnership Projects Director Brian Scott, said school closures probably won't be necessary for at least the next few years Ñ if the district takes many of these other actions.
Here are some of the main property issues that the study details:
The study recommends that the district sell or lease eight properties Ñ one piece of land and seven buildings that are either empty or primarily house administrators.
The biggest potential revenue generators would be the district's administration building and warehouse on the east bank of the Willamette River near the Rose Garden and the former Washington High School, which now houses administrators, on Southeast 14th Avenue.
Scott estimated that the sale or lease of the two properties alone could generate revenue or interest of $1 million per year for the district.
There has been little momentum within the district to make the administration building available for sale, in part because the complex includes the warehouse and the central kitchen that makes all school meals for the district.
The schools budget approved last year did assume the district would begin moving administrators out of the former Washington High building to make that available for redevelopment. But little has happened this year Ñ in part because district shuffles moved more administrators into the former Washington building.
'I think they've moved far too slowly,' said Duane Schulz, a high-tech executive and former chairman of a citizens committee that made many of the same recommendations in 1999.
Innovation Partnership officials have helped the district set up a real-estate trust of local volunteers to help manage the redevelopment or sale of some of the district's properties. Board members think that will significantly improve the district's ability to sell or lease properties.
Innovation Partnership also recommended something that had not been suggested before: that the district sell or lease land that adjoins dozens of schools.
Marshall High School, for example, sits on 23 acres, including two or three in front of the school that could be subdivided for housing, the study recommended. The Kenton Elementary School site in North Portland includes four acres east of the building that could be sold for commercial development near the light-rail line under construction in the area.
Scott estimated the district might be able to sell or lease as many as 60 acres throughout the district Ñ and generate $10 million.
'I am just thrilled by the piece that shows the extra land,' Abrams said of the study. 'I thought that was an incredibly good piece that we had not thought of. I think those kinds of things are very doable.'
Regarding the biggest and potentially most divisive issue Ñ merging some school programs and closing schools Ñ people viewed the study's details in different ways.
Abrams and Tony Larson, the chairman of a citizens committee that monitors the district's budget, said they thought the study pointed out that the district needed to merge some elementary school programs and close some neighborhood schools.
Revised projections reveal less enrollment loss than previously forecast, but still show enrollment loss in the 54,000-student district of 6,000 students over the next decade.
'I still believe when you're talking about declining at 400 or 450 kids a year, the only responsible course is to look at reducing the number of (school) buildings,' Abrams said. But he added: 'I don't believe the rest of the board is there.'
Board member Sue Hagmeier isn't.
'What I think (the study) says is there's a whole bunch of stuff we can do first,' she said. 'And as difficult as I think the politics are regarding consolidating schools, I think doing it before doing the easier stuff would be suicide.'