New Opportunities for Historic Schools?

Speed Street School, Vicksburg (1894-2009)

Since the early days of MissPres, I’ve noted the often unnecessary demolition of historic schools and the lack of maintenance of those still operating as schools. Off the top of my head, I can name just a few of the important historic schools we’ve lost in the last couple of years: Speed Street School, Nailor Elementary School, Inverness School. Then yesterday I saw in JRGordon’s News Roundup that the school officials of Smithville School up in Monroe County have decided that rather than repair the two historic classroom buildings on that campus that were damaged-but-nowhere-near-destroyed by the April tornado, they’d like to make FEMA and my tax dollars pay for a brand-spanking-new school instead.

The Mississippi Heritage Trust listed MIssissippi’s Historic Schools on its very first 10 Most Endangered List back in 1999, saying:

Built of solid materials and designed in unique architectural styles, Mississippi’s Historic Public School Buildings once served as the heart of the neighborhoods in which they stand. Nationally, communities have faced an unfortunate trend of constructing new buildings for education as the solution to upgrading school facilities. Because of this philosophy, historic neighborhood public schools often are left vacant to deteriorate or to be demolished.

Franklin Academy Elementary School, Columbus, MS (CHPG grant 2001, 2003)

Attempting to address that point, the state legislature passed its first Community Heritage Preservation Grant (CHPG) in 2001, aimed specifically at the two major public landmarks in most Mississippi communities: schools and courthouses. This grant has saved many historic schools around the state, including the Prentiss Institute (a rare Rosenwald school), the Clay County Agricultural High School in Pheba (one of the very few early AHS buildings still standing), Columbus’ Franklin Academy, Rosedale High School, Wesson School, and many more that you can find in this handy list of all CHPG projects since the beginning of time.

But still school officials often sell the public on the notion that “these old buildings aren’t fit for education,” ignoring the fact that these sound and architecturally distinctive buildings were good enough for the education of their parents and grandparents and could still be community landmarks for future generations if they were maintained properly.

Anyway, I recount this recent history in order to introduce a possible new way for communities to generate the necessary cash to repair their historic schools and keep them operating as schools. It’s a proposal before Congress called “The Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act of 2011.”

Here’s the press release from Thursday, October 12:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Mark Warner (D-VA) today introduced “The Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act of 2011,” which provides a tax credit for communities to partner with private sector developers to rehabilitate the nation’s older school buildings. The legislation amends existing law to allow local governments to use the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit to rebuild decaying schools.

“The need to rehabilitate our nation’s historic schools is something that brings leaders from both parties together, drives revitalization in some of our most economically vulnerable neighborhoods, and will provide our students access to safe, modern schools,” said Senator Webb. “I’m pleased to have the support of Governor McDonnell and Majority Leader Cantor for this important legislation to rebuild our ailing schools.”

“This is a win-win-win,” Senator Warner said. “It can put people back to work upgrading our schools, it will engage private capital at a time of limited public resources, and it should result in safer, modern school facilities for students.”

In the past, schools such as the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, Virginia have had to navigate an onerous legal process to qualify for the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit, an obstacle that has discouraged hard-pressed localities from utilizing the tax credit.

Speaking about the legislation Governor McDonnell remarked, “We all know a few basic truths about our current situation in this country. We need to modernize our educational infrastructure to ensure that our young people receive the world class educations they need and deserve. We need to get more of our fellow Americans back to work in an extremely difficult economy. And we are far from sound fiscally, with limited resources in Washington and a need to get spending under control. With those three truths in mind, this legislation makes more sense now than ever. By passing this bill, we will give our children better schools, put Americans back to work, and not increase government spending in the process.

“They say we’ve run out of common ground in this nation” continued Gov. McDonnell. “This bill demonstrates just how mistaken that belief is. This is common sense legislation that Democrats, Republicans, Independents, school children, teachers, parents, Main Street, Wall Street, the private sector and the public sector can all support and embrace. I thank Senator Webb, Senator Warner and Congressman Cantor for their leadership on this issue. I urge the Congress to pass this bill immediately. This is a jobs bill and an education bill. It puts Americans to work today while preparing younger Americans to work and succeed in the jobs of tomorrow.”

“Many of our nation’s public school buildings are in need of significant repairs and renovations,” Congressman Cantor said. “At a time when our country faces serious economic challenges, we must look for new and innovative ways to improve the quality of our schools for our students. Through a simple update to the tax code, this common-sense legislation will allow schools to make better use of the existing historic rehabilitation tax credit and leverage private capital to upgrade and modernize classrooms in the Commonwealth and throughout the country. We support this bipartisan, cost-effective measure that will help fix our schools, and ensure that our children have the best opportunity to learn and succeed in the future.”

In its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave public school facilities a grade of “D.”  The ASCE noted that there is “ample evidence that local communities are struggling” to meet their responsibility for school infrastructure.

According to Fix America’s Schools Today, a project of the Economic Policy Institute and the 21st Century School Fund, “Schools need an estimated $500 billion in repairs and upgrades” and “construction and building repair generally create 9,000-10,000 jobs per billion dollars spent.”

“With municipalities across the country unable to fund school repairs and construction, this bill will provide needed assistance, partner local government with the private sector, create jobs, and give our children the facilities they need to learn and grow,” said Senator Webb. “Good local schools and well-maintained public facilities are key indicators of where businesses may locate. This legislation strengthens our communities across the board.”

“The proposal introduced by Senators Webb and Warner has significant promise for future students in Virginia,” said Dr. Kitty Boitnott, President of the Virginia Education Association. “Many of the older buildings that will qualify are in inner-city and poor rural divisions where additional support for education is most needed.  This measure will make conversion of these buildings into 21st Century learning centers possible.  We are thankful to Senators Webb and Warner for their continued support of our schools.”

Senators Webb and Warner introduced identical legislation in the 111th Congress and a similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA).

Now, I’m not an accountant, and I’m not a politician, so I don’t completely understand the economics of this, and I can’t be sure whether this bill even has a chance of going anywhere. But I think it shows some thinking outside the box. While “public-private partnerships” seem to be all the rage, I’m not sure about the future of any tax credits in the current political climate, so we’ll just keep an eye on this bill and see if it grows up into a Law.

Categories: Historic Preservation, Schools

4 replies

  1. That’s a great opportunity. I hope something happens with it.


  2. It’s a great idea and a sign that, just possibly, the nasty bridge between the political parties can be surmounted for a change.


  3. if this can be done, it would be a great advance. school districts have been among the most wanton destroyers of our architectural heritage demolishing with a despotism that has no regard for the sentiment of the public whatsoever.


  4. Yes, indeed, so many schools have been left in disrepair to dilapidate or just torn down with no other repurposing of the property planned.


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