Closing Schools: What We Know About Community Participation and Influence

I have watched with interest as the Rochester City School District begins the school closure process to shutter an undetermined number of schools based upon deteriorating facilities and declining enrollments. Although this is becoming more common in areas across the country, as many of you know this is not new for Rochester. In fact, each of the last few superintendents has discussed (and some have followed through with) closing schools.

Having studied the process of school closure in one urban community with Warner alumnus Mark Lavner (Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Support Services in the Canandaigua City School District), with a particular focus on community member participation in and influence over urban school closures, I wanted to share some important findings with those in the Warner School community who might serve as community advocates, teachers, administrators, or parents of students in these schools.

Our case study involved interviews with School Board members, district administrators, and community members, as well as a review of district documents and newspaper articles. We found that:

1. district administrators streamlined participation in the process through committee membership and public hearings;

2. the development of an “objective” process, involving categorization of schools by characteristics such as the state of the building, economic reuse of the building, and student enrollment trends, served to legitimize the process;

3. parents representing schools in higher income areas influenced the process through both formal and informal mechanisms;

4. parents representing schools in lower income areas influenced the process primarily through alliances with external (powerful) groups.

Beyond these findings, I offer three important implications relating to community participation in and influence over school closure.

1) Speaking out at School Board meetings, while an important symbolic measure of participation, was the least influential activity as Board members told us by that point they had already made up their mind and the burden was much higher to “convince” them of something that they hadn’t alreadon through public hearings.” (Finnigan & Lavner, 2012, p. 144)

2) We often focus on formal mechanisms to influence a policy decision, e.g., speaking at a formal hearing or attending a formal meeting, however, informal mechanisms can be even more powerful. Informal communication in this case occurs as individuals or special interest groups share their views through public or private conversations, letters to the newspaper, or e-mails or phone calls to School Board members or district administrators.

Another excerpt from our article,

“As one Board member noted, ‘‘Because they yell at you at Board meetings… the press assumes that that’s where the protest is coming from when, in fact, what’s happened is that the effective protest has already occurred, and it’s over.’’ Community members who were ‘‘politically more aware’’ and would call up or arrange personal meetings were found to be the most influential. Another Board member concurred, ‘‘It seems to offend participatory democracy. It is vastly more behind the scenes than it is anything else.’’ (p.147).

3) Political power can be gained through leveraging linkages between schools and other community groups. In fact, in the community we studied the following were influential: “an active PTO President, direct contact with Board members and district officials, meetings with large numbers of parents in attendance, letter writing and email campaigns, and contact with elected officials. The ability to influence the decision was a function of the inherent power of these individuals or groups, resulting from the formal role individuals or groups had within the community (i.e. PTO President, prestigious business organization, established think tank, neighborhood association, etc.) or the resources they could generate” (p. 148).

With the exception of the mobilization of large numbers of individuals in support of a school (i.e., strength in numbers), schools and community members will likely generate more influence over an urban school closure decision through a range of informal participatory practices and community alliances.

Finnigan, K. S., & Lavner, M. (2012). A political analysis of community influence over school closure. The Urban Review, 44(1), 133-151.