Capital News Service

Shrinking enrollment creates empty school buildings

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For over 50 years, Frost Elementary School served the students of Jackson. 

But in June 2020, Frost closed its doors for good. 

The closure resulted from a 2018 bond issue that led to the merger of Cascades Elementary and Frost Elementary, according to the Jackson Public Schools superintendent’s office.

Since the 2009-2010 school year, 130 buildings in local districts have closed, the Michigan Official Education Data Source reports.

A number of factors go into considering closing a building, such as its age and cost of upkeep. However, declining enrollment is the primary reason buildings close, according to Brian Ciloski, a specialist in the Education Department’s Office of Financial Management. 

One explanation for low enrollment numbers is the shrinking number of school-aged children in Michigan. According to the 2015 Census, only 22% of households had children between 5 and 17. 

The Kaleva Norman Dickson District had 964 students in 2003. Six years later, enrollment dropped to 822 — a year before Kaleva Elementary and Wellston Elementary were to close. 

According to Superintendent Marlen Corde of Manistee County’s Kaleva Norman Dickson School District, both schools closed after the state cut $400 in funding per pupil for districts. 

“That put all districts in the state of Michigan in a bind,” Cordes said. 

After the two elementary schools closed, the district lost 90 students in one year. 

According to Cordes, many parents were unhappy with sending their children to a K-12 campus. “As you can imagine, those were community schools in those small towns, so there was some frustration,” he said.

“Another school district just decided they would run a bus right into our district and pick up those students to appease disgruntled parents,” he said, referring to the schools of choice program that allows parents to enroll their children in any public district or in charter schools, also known as public school academies. 

“School of choice — I understand the concept of it, but I think it really does work against districts. It’s the haves and the have nots too often,” he said.

In addition, Ciloski said the increase in charter schools significantly reduced funding available for all schools by increasing the number of schools eligible for state aid. 

“While choice is important, it leaves districts uncertain from year to year of what to expect in terms of funding levels,” Ciloski said. 

“I believe it also presents some risk to districts that are offering choice, as these districts may become reliant on a population of students who may not choose to remain enrolled in future years,” he said.

While the Frost Elementary building was sold to the Jackson County Intermediate School District, the Kaleva Norman Dickson School District is still looking for a buyer for its two vacant buildings.

Cordes said the buildings aren’t listed with a real estate agency because the appraisals are not igh, whicwould explain why the properties still haven’t been sold. 

The district spends between $40,000 to $45,000 to maintain the custodial services, heat and electricity. 

According to Ciloski, there is no accurate way to report how much money districts are spending for upkeep of their abandoned buildings because the state doesn’t require them to report those expenses. 

Cordes said there have been minimal problems with the empty buildings, despite concern about the threat of vandalism and trespassing 

“The only thing we have is cameras in there,” Cordes said. “Knock on wood, we’ve been pretty lucky.”

“We’ve had a few, younger kids that have thrown rocks and broken a window here or there. A couple of times at Wellston and Kaleva we had students get in there but not really do any damage at all,” he said.

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