Parents fear impact of empty Atlanta school buildings

Parents and community leaders fear a future of more derelict buildings dragging down struggling neighborhoods as 10 Atlanta schools face closure in a bid to balance enrollment and make better use of funding.

Atlanta Public Schools already has 14 empty school buildings, some of which closed in the 1970s. APS leaders say the overdue redistricting will save an estimated $500,000 per closed school, money that can be used to increase funding at existing schools.

But critics say closing the schools, primarily located in the southern part of the city, could hamper hope for future redevelopment in struggling communities. Residents in these communities already feel abandoned, said Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, and closing a school without a plan to repurpose the building adds to those concerns.

"If you leave an old building sitting for so long, the water is not running, the gas line isn’t working ... it makes it harder to redevelop them, making them a place for crime," she said.

"Let’s turn them into a community center, an art center, a center of hope, a charter school, or a vocational high school," Sheperd said. "If we’re going to close them, let’s make sure we turn them into something positive for the community."

APS serves about 47,000 students, excluding those in charter schools, but has space for 60,000. The district spends about $27 million annually on salaries for educators who work in schools too small to qualify for state funding, according to APS officials.

The redistricting proposal, which goes before the school board Tuesday, reduces the number of elementary and middle schools with less than 450 students from 38 to 17.

"As it is now, underenrolled schools are not eligible for the resources that schools that are at or near full capacity receive," Superintendent Erroll Davis wrote in a letter posted this week on the district's website.

School board member Byron Amos, who represents a district where five schools potentially could close, said the proposal creates "education deserts" where students will have to travel long distances to attend school. Instead, the district should leave the schools open and create strong academic programs to draw parents in, he said.

"People will take a chance on neighborhoods, but they will not take a chance on their child’s education," he said. "In inner city neighborhoods where we're trying to redevelop, the only foundation we can stand on, nine times out of 10, is the school left in the neighborhood."

Enrollment and population shifts in Atlanta have left some schools underpopulated and put others at maximum capacity.

One reason for those shifts came in 2008 when the city got permission to demolish all large public housing developments and create less dense, mixed-income neighborhoods. Housing officials say 75 percent of the former public housing families still live somewhere inside Atlanta, but demographers hired by the district say that contributed to enrollment shifts around the city.

Some of the public housing complexes were replaced with mixed income neighborhoods, but the sluggish economy has stalled redevelopment in others places, like the former Bowen Homes. Sitting near the 64-acres of grassy fields where the homes used to be is Williams Elementary, a boarded-up school that closed in 2009, just before the city bulldozed the housing complex.

It's these kind of vacant pockets that parents and city leaders want to avoid.

Overall, enrollment is expected to increase in the next 10 years, but mostly in the northern portion of the city, which includes Midtown, Virginia-Highland and Buckhead. Closing the 10 schools would eliminate 5,500 of the 13,000 empty seats, and would allow district officials to funnel more resources into existing schools.

The enrollment problem isn't unique to Atlanta. Last year, the DeKalb County system closed eight schools in order to balance enrollment shifts in the 95,000-student district. DeKalb has about 10 vacant school properties.

Gwinnett and Cobb don’t have any empty school buildings, although Cobb plans to close two schools in the coming years. Cobb officials haven’t yet decided how buildings left empty by the changes will be used.

In some cases, districts reuse empty school buildings for charter schools, community centers or extra office space. Several former Atlanta schools are now being used for other purposes, and the district has formed a committee to come up with options. Some schools will become "career academies," which is sort of like a modern-day vocational school.

APS officials could not say how much it costs to maintain vacant buildings, but a recent visit to an empty school showed the district does basic maintenance, such as mowing the grass.

Still, residents like Ethel Goar worry empty school buildings will become a beacon for crime. Goar owns a home down the street from White Elementary, where she volunteers and walks her granddaughter to school every day. The school, one of the 10 slated for closure, is north of I-20 and east of I-285, near areas known for crime, such as English Avenue and Vine City.

"If you close it before you put anything in here, it's going to be a haven. They will tear this school up," she told school officials at a recent public hearing. "If they break in while it is open, what do you think they're going to do when it's closed? They're waiting on it now."

Atlanta schools identified to close:

Parks Middle

Capitol View Elementary

F.L. Stanton Elementary

White Elementary

Towns Elementary

Cook Elementary

East Lake Elementary

D.H. Stanton Elementary

Kennedy Middle

Herndon Elementary