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Education

Many Schools, Few Kids: St. Louis Plagued By Too Much Unused Building Space

A child and an adult leave Farragut Elementary School in St. Louis's Greater Ville neighborhood in Jan. 9, 2019.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
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St. Louis Public Radio
Farragut Elementary School in St. Louis' Greater Ville neighborhood will close next month as the city's school-age population continues to shrink.

Last place. Second-to-last. Third-from-last. No matter what districts the team at St. Louis University’s PRiME Center put St. Louis’ school enrollment up against, the city stayed at the bottom.

“We were kind of shocked going through it to see such a consistent result,” said Evan Rhinesmith, the center’s director of research.

St. Louis Public Schools has an average of 308 students in each of its 71 schools currently, according to the analysis. Include the city’s 36 charter schools, and it’s 313 children spread across 107 schools. Twenty-six schools in the district are using less than half their space.

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The district once educated 115,000 students. Today, its enrollment has fallen to about 21,000. While it’s been closing schools for decades, enrollment has yet to bottom out.

“I think an important piece of the story is that the school closures and school consolidation conversation is not new,” Rhinesmith said. “The infrastructure was meant for a larger district and unfortunately, we're not at that point anymore.”

The PRiME Center, which studies education issues in Missouri, decided to see how that measures up against the state’s other school districts, as well as major cities around the country and other comparable districts.

Compared to the 20 largest districts in Missouri, St. Louis has the fewest students in its buildings. Same goes for comparing St. Louis to 77 of the nation’s largest urban school systems. When the center expanded to the 247 largest districts from all 50 states, SLPS was 245, beating out only school systems in Alaska and Wyoming. The average number of kids in school buildings was usually twice the size of St. Louis’ enrollments.

Sending students to school buildings with so many empty classrooms dramatically increases expenses.

“The costs are just much higher on a per-pupil basis when schools are small,” said Lina Bankert, from Bellwether Education Partners, a think tank and consulting firm.

But closing schools to maximize dollars and efficiency isn’t a simple task.

“Closing a school, it's fraught, it is a tough, tough decision to make, it goes beyond just what logic or numbers might tell you,” Bankert said. “And there's so much emotion, connection to the community and legacy that often needs to be reckoned with as well.”

With fewer buildings to keep open, schools can afford more elective courses, programs and support staff. That’s the argument district officials are making.

St. Louis Public Schools will close eight buildings at the end of the school year after district officials initially proposed closing 11. Community pushback was particularly strong over Sumner High School’s potential demise. According to the PRiME Center, closing the eight schools will increase the district’s average building enrollment by 27, to 335.

Bankert argues that the needs of kids and community should be strongly considered when discussing school closures. But at some point, it’ll just be too expensive to keep the lights on.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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