A community of practice dedicated to sharing and developing knowledge to improve urban public school facilities and the communities they serve.

POLICY (Historic Schools and Significant Existing Buildings)

The State should develop legislation and/or policies that encourage and support the continued use and adaptive reuse of older or historic schools and/or the conversion of existing buildings and structures within a community to serve an educational function.

The continued use of existing older schools results in three major obstacles when the current and anticipated educational needs for the next generation require renovation. These obstacles are site standards, funding formulas with arbitrary and antiquated requirements, and the interpretation and application of the current building codes. Many schools that have served as centers of community are disappearing from our neighborhoods and particularly from rural communities. Every reasonable effort should be made to continue use of older and historic schools as public school buildings.

Frequently, older schools are smaller and are therefore pressured to consolidate with other schools to create new schools, often on new sites, and possible out of the center of the town. Communities need to evaluate the impact of this action, socially, economically and educationally. Some factors to consider are that (a) smaller schools have been shown to provide a more effective environment for learning, (b) neighborhood or community schools are often walk-able or are accessible by bike or public transportation, and (c) local schools can serve the community during and after school hours.

School districts should consider the use and co-use of existing public and private resources to serve education programs, such as recreational facilities, transportation infrastructure, museums, libraries, YMCAs, and existing community centers.

In some states, detrimental funding biases exist that are based upon old formulas and different objectives, and that support demolishing existing schools and then building a new facility. These formulas and/or funding criteria prevent the development of an unbiased feasibility study that considers renovating existing schools. Renovation is often a feasible option, and can be achieved at a cost savings over new construction. This preference for new construction is usually expressed through what is often referred to as the “two-thirds rule” or some variation of it. In other words, if the cost of renovating an existing school exceeds a certain percentage – 2/3, 50%, 60%, or some other percentage of the cost of building a new school – the state requires (or encourages) the local school district to build a new school or forfeit state financial aid. In some cases, school districts have adopted these same standards even when state funding and/or approval is not involved under the assumption that they are acting in a prudent and fiscally responsible manner.

In another state, the state share of funding is provided based upon the following percentages of the cost of building a new school for a renovation project: (a) 100% of the cost if the school is over 40 years of age, (b) 85% of the cost if the school is 31-39 years of age, (c) 75% of the cost if the school is 26-30 years of age, and (d) 60% of the cost if the school is 21-25 years of age.

In some states, all options must be reasonably evaluated before a decision is made. This requires a thorough examination of building costs and the commitment to only fund new construction in the event that renovation is not cost effective, is not in the public’s interest and does not meet the educational program needs. The state department of education should have the authority and responsibility to review and approve or disapprove the feasibility studies that are prepared by the school district before they are authorized to proceed with any replacement school project. This will help assure that the study is performed without a predetermined solution, particularly to replace the existing neighborhood school.

Nothing is more important than the health and safety of children, parents, teachers and school personnel. Every school should meet the intent of building codes that are designed to ensure structural, fire and health needs. However, there are many, acceptable ways of meeting the requirements and intent of the building codes. Currently many states require that building renovation work must comply with building codes suited for new construction. In the renovation of older and historic structures, some states have adopted more flexible approaches to code compliance by allowing building owners to propose alternate solutions to code issues while meeting structural, fire, and health rules. These alternate codes require approval by the appropriate code officials while preserving the historic characteristics that make the building a community asset. States should allow qualified historic schools to use the state historic building code or an applicable historic building code.

States should gather data and information pertaining to historic schools or soon to be eligible historic schools in the state. In most cases, buildings are eligible for historic status when they reach 50 years of age. States should look at 40 year-old schools and document their history, current usage, and anticipated use during the next ten-twenty years. This will help proactively inform communities about the costs and benefits of different options when decisions about renovation versus new construction arise.

It should be asserted that benefits are not always financial. The history and architecture of a school building, and its value to a community is a benefit. The ability to walk or take public transportation is a benefit. Adjacency to public libraries and other services is a benefit.

In cases where existing school buildings become unsuitable or unavailable, other older and/or historic non-educational community buildings should be considered. Reuse (a) is fiscally conservative since it reuses existing municipal or community infrastructure; (b) often encourages investment in presently underdeveloped areas; and (c) retains community history by reusing older structures.

search policies

Policy Links & Resources