How can Arizona put underutilized school facilities to good use?

Arizona has more than 1.4 million square feet of reported vacant or underused school facility space, according to a new report out from two leading research organizations.

The Empty Schools Full of Promise: Exploring the Benefits of District-Charter Co-location Partnerships in Arizona was developed by the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Chamber Foundation.

It addresses the issue of underutilized school facilities and lays out methods to tackle the issue.

“What happens when you have underutilized, or completely vacant school space is that districts wind up diverting resources that they could spend in the classroom to maintain these facilities.  That’s money that we could be using to spend to increase teacher salaries and other vital needs,” Dr. Matthew Ladner, Arizona Chamber Foundation senior research strategist and co-author of the report, said.

Arizona school districts and charter schools also have numerous students on waitlists. If the underutilized space was put to use, it could shrink the size of the waitlists.

The report suggests co-location, which involves unused district school space with charter schools, in an effort to address this issue.

“So, what could happen in Arizona is that it could be mutually beneficial to districts and charters to lease out space,” Dr. Ladner said. “So, if there is a district with vacant space but there are also high-demand programs or high-demand charters, either one would make use of that space. It could be done in a variety of different ways but if [the school districts] were to do that, then they could bring in more enrollment from outside of the district and generate more revenue in the process.”

Dr. Ladner explained that other states have successfully adopted the co-locate approach and have developed policies that are designed to benefit district schools, charter schools, families and taxpayers.

As stated by the report, figures from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology research indicate, “if Arizona’s 553 charter schools were to co-locate and/or lease space from districts at the same rate as charters in Georgia, California, or New York, the savings could reach $21 million-$38 million per year.”

“In the places where co-location is being practiced, the resulting cost savings paid off for students’ education,” a Goldwater Institute press release explained.

Arizona’s issue of vacant and underutilized school facility space came about in large part due to the economic downturn in 2008.

“The Great Recession had a huge impact on this [because] it actually moderated statewide enrollment growth for a number of years. So, we simply weren’t growing as fast for a while and now we’re back to growing again,” Dr. Ladner explained.

Senate Bill 1438, introduced by State Senator Vince Leach, proposes that the School Facilities Board and the Department of Administration must annually publish a list of vacant partially used buildings that are owned by the state; prevents school districts from prohibiting a charter school or private school from buying or leasing available space; and states that a school district cannot accept an offer that is less than an offer from a charter school or private school.

Sierra Ciaramella

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