When the school board voted to close Hoover Elementary, the board members didn’t articulate a clear reason for the closure. To some extent that’s still true, but over time the reasons seemed to come down to two. First, closure advocates argued that the district needed to close an elementary school to save operational expenses. Second, they argued that City High needs the Hoover land. I don’t think either reason stands up to scrutiny; in this post, I’ll focus on operational expenses, and in another post I’ll talk about the City High argument.
Before we talk about the cost of keeping Hoover open, it’s important to understand that closing Hoover costs a lot of money. If the district tears down Hoover, which can hold over 300 students, it will have to build that many new seats somewhere else. For example, while closing Hoover, the district also plans to build 330 seats of new capacity on Horace Mann and Longfellow schools, which will apparently cost somewhere in the neighborhood of ten million dollars. That’s money we wouldn’t have to spend if we kept Hoover open.
But keeping Hoover open does mean that we’ll incur annual operating costs. By combining three schools into two—which is essentially what the district would be doing by closing Hoover while expanding Mann and Longfellow—we can achieve some savings in operating costs, since, for example, we might be able to pay only two principals instead of three. But you quickly run into limits on what you can save this way: the great majority of operating costs are to pay teachers, and the students will still need teachers. Currently, Hoover has two full classrooms in each grade; there’s no reason to think that we could cut the number of classroom teachers simply by moving all the students to other schools.
So how much could be saved annually in operating costs if Hoover closes? Michael Tilley looked closely at the numbers and arrived at an estimate of $191,000. If anything, the real number might be lower, since Tilley did not factor in any busing costs. (One small corner of Hoover’s attendance area is not within two miles of any other school, and thus would be entitled under state law to busing, though it’s not clear to what degree that would affect total busing costs, or whether there would be other busing costs in addition.) If you doubt Tilley’s estimate, take a look at this (only slightly out-of-date) chart and see how you can squeeze much more than $191,000 out of closing Hoover School. (See pages 19 and 20.)
That’s just over 0.1% of the district’s annual expenditures. Of course any amount of money is important, but $191,000 is strikingly small compared with the roughly ten million dollar cost of replacing Hoover’s capacity elsewhere. Yes, I know, construction costs come out of a different “pot” of money than operating costs do. But that doesn’t mean it’s smart to spend ten million in construction costs to reap an annual savings of $191,000.
By comparison: this week the board voted not to cut discretionary bus routes, even though it would have saved $849,000 in annual operating expenses. The board (reasonably) decided that discretionary busing is important. Keeping neighborhood schools open is important too—and, as it turns out, doesn’t cost much.
Moreover, even if $191,000 were worth closing an elementary school for, there would be no reason to single out Hoover for closure. Hoover is larger than several other schools (which means it would cost more to replace its lost capacity) and is relatively efficient in its operating costs. In fact, the additions that the district is building onto Twain and Shimek bring them up to roughly the capacity that Hoover has now, which must mean that the district sees that as a workable size. Lincoln and Hills will be smaller than Hoover even after they receive their additions. None of these schools need to close.
Closing a school is a big deal. You don’t do it just to shave a tenth of a percentage point off your annual expenses, especially if it means borrowing ten million dollars for new construction. And if the district can’t resist that small annual savings, why would it stop at one school? It could save comparable amounts (or more) by closing other elementaries, until we’re left with only big 500-kid schools. If you eat that chip, it’s going to be real hard not to eat the next one, and the one after that. Is that what anyone wants?