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Ohio districts are considering shuttering schools — and the backlash is intense

A large, childlishly decorated sign reads "Keep Siebert open." It is colorful with hearts and attached poms. A scattering of people are out-of-focus in the periphery of the frame.
Allie Vugrincic
Siebert Elementary School students carry signs during a May community engagement meeting at a library near their school. Siebert Elementary is among 20 school buildings Columbus City Schools is considering closing in a consolidation plan.

At a May meeting of the Columbus Board of Education, a third grader made a plea.

“I love my school and I don’t want to see it closed,” he said. “For some of my classmates, school is their only safe space. Sometimes [it’s] the only place they can get a bite to eat.”

The board is considering closing buildings and merging schools. And it’s not the only one: public schools across Ohio and the nation are grappling with years of enrollment declines.

Even as the city of Columbus’ population has nearly doubled since the 1970s, the school district has lost more than half of its students. It’s enrollment now sits around 45,000, down from a peak of more than 110,000 in 1971.

The district’s current 112 school buildings have room for about 59,000 students.

Columbus City Schools Superintendent Angela Chapman has said underutilized buildings are expensive. She also argues that having fewer, larger schools would allow the district to offer more programs and extracurriculars to all of its students.

“We are spending more of our financial resources on facilities, operations and maintenance of buildings than we are on instruction,” Chapman said. “That narrative, that dynamic, has to change, right?”

Why close a school

Chapman put together a volunteer group of community members that, over a few months, considered how best to consolidate the district’s buildings. The Superintendent’s Facilities Task Force looked at an array of factors, but chief among them were student enrollment and building capacity, age and condition.

In May, the group suggested closing up to 20 of the district’s buildings in nine consolidation scenarios.

Families, teachers and staff questioned their process. Community members turned up in force at engagement meetings, asking whether safety, academic achievement and diversity were factored into decisions.

A woman sits with her hand raised and an impatient expression. Others stand in the background.
Allie Vugrincic
Duxberry Park Arts Impact Elementary School parent Rita Hallaveld waits to be called on during a community engagement meeting seeking feedback on Columbus City Schools' preliminary plan to close up to 20 of the district's more than 100 school buildings.

A large number of students from Siebert Elementary school took a 'field trip' mid-school day to attend one morning meeting at Parsons Library. Unable to fit into the small meeting room, they bunched in the main library, holding signs that read, “I am the face of Siebert” and “I am not a number.”

When they got the chance, they marched single file through the room to the applause of families and teachers. Then, parents turned their frustrations toward the district and members of the volunteer task force.

“We all have to understand how wild it is to have made these decisions without speaking through or talking to or seeing the facility,” said Siebert parent Katie Sinclair after hearing the task force had not visited the buildings suggested for closure.

Donna Collins, whose granddaughter attends Siebert, referenced what she called “the elephant in the room:”

“That $98 million levy that was passed. We passed that thinking that you was just going to fix our schools and let our children be,” Collins said.

Columbus voters passed that levy last November with 54% of the vote. More than half of it is dedicated to improvements to district properties.

Alex Trevino, district director of capital improvements, said Columbus City Schools is grateful for the support, but that the support is finite.

“If we maintain status quo, those resources get stretched across all the facilities. If we can reduce the number of facilities, that same amount of resource, there is more to invest in the facilities that remain,” Trevino told Collins.

A nationwide issue

What’s happening in Columbus is not unique. Vladimir Kogan, a professor of political science at Ohio State University who studies education policy, said he hears about school districts consolidating all over the country.

In Ohio, Akron and Medina have already gone through the process of closing buildings and combining schools, and Cleveland has started the conversation.

Enrollment decline has been stark in urban areas. Kogan blames shifting demographics, families moving to the suburbs and the growing number of alternatives to public schools – like charter schools and online academies.

Mismatched school desks sit empty in a classroom.
Allie Vugrincic
Mismatched desks sit in a literature classroom at Columbus Alternative High School. The popular and well-performing program is housed in a building that dates in part back to the 1920s. One scenario proposed in Columbus City Schools' consolidation plans is to close the building and move the program to a newer high school building downtown.

The pandemic only sped things up. Kogan said research shows that schools that stayed virtual the longest had the largest enrollment declines. Now, pandemic-era federal funding is running dry, leaving schools with budgetary pain.

Districts like Columbus and Cleveland are left with the additional problem of having too many buildings. They boomed in the ‘70s and’ 80s before losing students. Now they have more buildings – sometimes way more buildings – than districts with similar enrollments.

“It's much harder to close school buildings when you start shrinking than it is never to open school buildings if you were never twice as big to begin with,” Kogan said.

Painful decisions

Consolidating is painful – students lose their home schools and faculty, and some staff lose their jobs. Kogan points out that while closing facilities saves some money, the real savings will come in the form of payroll costs.

When done right, though, consolidating can also mean putting students in newer schools with better technology and access to more programs.

Kogan said districts have to weigh more than enrollment and building conditions as they make their decision. 

“If what you want to do is protect students and really shield them from the academic impacts, you’ve got to make sure that students whose schools closed are able to attend a better school,” Kogan said.

Two women stand in a classroom smiling for the camera. A bookshelf and school posters sit in the background.
Allie Vugrincic
Graduating Columbus senior Josephine Amponsah, left, poses with her English teacher, Kelsey Gray, in Gray's classroom at Independence High School. Amponsah worries that closing any schools will impact students' performance and mental health.

But graduating Columbus senior Josephine Amponsah worries that moving kids – even to supposedly better schools – deprives them of connections with teachers and friends. She said today’s students can’t afford that after going through the isolation of the pandemic.

“To have the school shut down abruptly and then you have to be relocated. It's a price that a lot of kids have to pay,” Amponsah said.

The Superintendent’s Facilities Task Force is supposed to make a final recommendation about which buildings to close this month. Then, it’ll be up to the Columbus Board of Education to decide whether to act.

With continued community uproar, it remains to be seen which – if any – doors will be closed.