Vandals stay busy as DISD ignores residents’ ideas for empty schools
By GERALD BRITT
It’s called the broken-window theory. A building with broken windows invites further vandalism, crime and blight. The building becomes a metaphor for the hopelessness and despair in a community as its abandonment becomes a symbol for neglect and disinvestment.
Recent news articles about the vandalism of abandoned school buildings in South Dallas illustrate the self-perpetuating problem: Closing a school without having a plan for what to do with the building is an open invitation to vandalism and criminal mischief. In fact, that outcome is guaranteed.
Dallas Independent School District trustees made the decision over the past two years to close 11 schools, several of them in South Dallas. Fiscal reasoning was provided: Low student enrollment and declining population in those communities made the continued operation of these schools economically untenable. It was a decision necessitated by a $5 billion cut in public education funding by the state Legislature, accounting for $1 million in lost funding for DISD, and a threatened loss of $125 million in federal funding. On paper it made good financial sense.
But this was a problematic “sensible” solution. As has happened in other cities, abandoned school buildings don’t repurpose themselves. With no plans or activities to benefit the surrounding communities, the structures become victims to vandalism, criminal trespassing and other forms of mischief.
No one involved in the decision to close those schools can plausibly claim to be surprised by this result. Nor can they deny that they failed to explore reasonable suggestions from surrounding communities on repurposing the buildings. Instead, the vandalized and scarred buildings exacerbate the decline of these neighborhoods, further drive down property values and make redevelopment almost impossible.
Some residents have suggested that Pearl C. Anderson Middle Learning Center be repurposed as job training center providing residents with skills in residential, commercial or highway construction trades. Such training could lead to living-wage employment for many in the community.
Others have suggested that Julia Frazier Elementary serve as a social services facility, where residents can receive needed services in close proximity to where they live.
In Seattle, a recent proposal was made that closed schools be turned into mixed-income housing for teachers and homeless families. There are other examples of abandoned school buildings that now house both for-profit and nonprofit businesses. In 2009, Spartan Internet Consulting renovated a school in East Lansing, Mich., to house a security Internet company on the second floor and the nonprofit Information Technology Empowerment Center on the ground level. The center offers hands-on activities designed to engage kids in math and science.
Still another suggestion is to use at least one of the Dallas schools as an in-district charter, which would combine creative curriculum and flexibility for staff with the security and accountability of a traditional school campus.
The most basic of these suggestions has been met with silence or shrugs from DISD trustees and officials. Meanwhile, the cost of the vandalism grows for both the district and, more important, the community. As viable proposals go unheeded, realize that the sound you hear in the background is more glass breaking.
The Rev. Gerald Britt Jr. is vice president of public policy at CitySquare. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and he blogs at changethewind.org.