Recently I was led through an abandoned building in Detroit.
“The first time we came in here in 2013 it was still relatively intact. The power was off, but pretty much everything else was in decent shape. It wasn’t in great shape, but just a matter of months and this place was completely destroyed,” one of my guides told me.
So, who walked away from a perfectly good building, failed to secure it well enough to keep metal thieves out?
The Detroit Public School District.
“We’re inside Hutchins Intermediate School,” said John Grover with Loveland Technologies. The doors were open. All the windows had been removed. The only barriers were piles of broken concrete and bags of leaves dumped on the property.
“Hutchins was built in 1922. It was actually one of a few prototype schools. It was very innovative for its time. In the early 1920s, the education system as we know it was really starting to come together, in particular public education,” Grover explained as we walked on broken glass and fallen ceiling tiles.
John Grover and Yvette van der Velde co-authored the report, A School District In Crisis. We’re walking through Hutchins because the authors think it’s a classic example of how nearly 200 buildings have been closed in the last 20 years, how neighborhoods have suffered because of the empty buildings, and how the Detroit School District continues to spiral downward.
“Hutchins was one of the first purpose-built intermediate schools. Before, a lot of junior high schools and high schools were just old, converted elementary schools. But Hutchins and its twin on the other side of the city, Barber, were designed for junior high school students. So, it had a number of innovations. It had gymnasiums, swimming pools. It was also one of the first schools designed specifically for community use. They envisioned it not only as a place for education, but also for the neighbors to come in and use the auditorium for meetings, or to use the gymnasiums or the swimming pools after hours. So, Hutchins really was the center of this neighborhood,” Grover said as we walked into the school's auditorium.
LG: And when was it shut down?
LG: That recently?
“The damage that you see here was done in maybe six months. Some of it was longer term. The weather does a lot of it. The tiles coming off of the ceiling, that’s just the result of water getting in. But, these used to be lockers here, you know, this giant gap in the wall. The scrappers would just come in and rip out the entire bank of lockers and walk straight out the door with them,” Grover explained.
Looking at the remnants of this grand three-story brick and stone building, the oak paneled library, the gyms, and swimming pools, and auditorium, you wonder why the school district walked away from it. They don’t build them like this anymore.
Grover told me it’s all about numbers.
"Around 2006 there were only about 380 students going to school here. So, the school district was faced with a choice. You have a successful school academically, but it’s designed for 2,200 students. It only has 380 in there. What do you do? So, what they ended up doing is they closed the program that was in this school, the Hutchins Intermediate program. They moved it to another school about 10 blocks to the south called McMichael Intermediate. And that became Hutchins at McMichael. And the feeling was you could just pick up all the students, all the teachers, the program that was so successful here and transplant it into another school,” Grover said.
But many students wouldn’t be transplanted. They left the district. It was either that or walk 10 blocks through rival gang territory to go to the new school. They went to charter schools. They went to inner-ring suburban schools.
This is not new. Since 2000, the Detroit Public School District went from 162,000 students to 47,000 – a loss of 115,000 students. Back at the Loveland Technologies office in downtown Detroit, John Grover explained what they found as they studied the history of Detroit schools.
Grover said it was thought closing schools was necessary because of the shrinking number of students. Actually, closing schools exacerbated the problem.
“Studies found that about 30% of the students from a closing school would leave the district altogether and go to different schools. With each student having a price tag on their head of between $6,000 and $7,000 a year in student funding, the loss of those students is a tremendous financial hit. You’re talking about losing hundreds of thousands of dollars just by moving the school from one location to another," Grover said.
"Then there were the follow-up costs. When they were doing some of the closings in 2004 and 2005, they found that the anticipated cost-savings from closing those schools was actually more or less wiped out in the first year by the one-time costs of moving everything out, the logistics of moving the students to a new building, preparing the building to receive them, then securing the old building, and maintaining the old building," Grover said.
"And as the years went on, the amount of money that they sank into securing the buildings – especially after the scrappers started to come in, they would break in, damage the water pipes, start ripping out the electrical wiring – the cost of keeping up with the scrappers, keeping the building secure, dispatching the police every time that they had a burglary alarm going off was extremely high as well. And then, after the building became essentially a rotted-out husk, now they have to come up with money to demolish them which can range anywhere from $130,000 for a small school building to upwards of a half-million to a million dollars for a larger building," Grover continued.
"Those costs, all those costs after the closure were not factored into the anticipated savings. And the loss of students, the permanent loss of 30% of students when you close a school as well as all of those after-the-closing costs have essentially made closing the school building not practical anymore. And that’s why Detroit Public Schools haven’t closed any schools since 2013. They know that the benefits of closing the school are outweighed by the costs of closing it,” the Grover said.
He explained that for the entire history of the Detroit Public School District, it's struggled to get it right. The Loveland team looked at data back to the year the district was founded, 1842.
“Some of the problems that the Detroit Public Schools are facing today have their roots dating back to the 1850s, the 1860s. Issues that they had then, including segregation, are still being felt today. So, rather than taking a look at just a slice of the school district’s history, we took a look at the entire history to see how we got to where we are today.”
The study found there was only one short period of time the Detroit Public School District was able to hit the sweet spot. It wasn't long, though, before white flight and the slow decline of the auto industry started to affect the district.
“It’s a tale of extremes. The school district when it was founded really struggled to provide enough seats and teachers for the number of students that wanted to attend. There were chronic shortages of buildings. The district was underfunded. And that struggle went on through the automotive boom, the First and Second World Wars, but towards the end of the 1950s and 1960s, the school district peaked. And just when they had enough capacity, enough schools, enough teachers, that’s when the decline began. And now the school district is struggling with having too many buildings, too many teachers for the number of students that it has,” Grover said.
At the district's peak, there were about 300,000 kids going to Detroit Public Schools in 370 buildings. Today 47,000 kids are taught in 91 buildings.
That’s 810 kids per building at the peak and 516 kids per building this year.
The Loveland report concludes Detroit Public Schools face a no-win scenario.
With no additional money, already substandard schools will get worse. The 1,700 teachers will get no substantive pay raises. That will lead to a further exodus of experienced teachers and larger classroom sizes.
The cost of trying to monitor and maintain or demolish closed buildings is a continuing drain on finances. The debt – which has continued to grow under state emergency management – is crippling.
The report leaves the residents and government with this question: Are Detroit’s public schools worth saving? And if so, how?
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.