Vacant schools keep community waiting and wondering
- There are four vacant MPS schools in North Minneapolis: Willard, Lincoln, Gordon, and Cooper.
- It costs $15K-$33K per year per school to maintain them when empty.
Cirien Saadeh | Staff Reporter
Willard School has been nearly empty for over a decade, but community members remember it differently.
Former Patrick Henry High School teacher Susan Breedlove reminisces about a school community that was crucial to North Minneapolis’ social health. Breedlove lived next to Willard Elementary School in the 1960s. At the time she worked for Northside Settlement House, which partnered with organizations like the Metropolitan Cultural Arts Center (MCAC) and Willard Elementary School to put on children’s theatre performances out of the school’s auditorium.
“One of the things that the kids did through that partnership was "The Wizard of Oz." I can't remember where it was performed, but it was very well attended and advertised throughout the metro area. MCAC pulled kids, principally, out of Willard School to participate,” said Breedlove. “The other factor is they used to have family nights there, and whole families would come. The auditorium and the gym; there were all kinds of sports going around. There were meetings from the community going on, as well.”
That auditorium now sits empty. Willard was decommissioned and vacated in 2005 by the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS); students were moved to Lincoln School, which was then also shut down in 2007. According to reports from MPS, both schools were decommissioned due to declining enrollment, a problem which has continued to plague MPS schools in the Northside and across the district. Both Willard & Lincoln were built in the early 20th century and both remain technically operational.
“Vacant buildings are inspected and maintained by plant maintenance. Boilers are run and critical building systems are run, but to a lesser degree. There is only a minimal level of operational maintenance and no capital funding is being sent to vacant buildings. If a vacant building is re-opened, it would require an assessment and work would need to be done to get a permit to reoccupy,” said Karen DeVet, Chief Operations Officer for MPS.
Many community members are concerned and even more are confused. Both buildings have been largely vacant for several years, which has had an immediate impact on community welfare. Both buildings are also largely inaccessible to community members.
“It does a disservice to the community. Vacant buildings do nothing good. So it's a disincentive for people to come over here and invest, because it's around vacant stuff. Who wants to buy a house next to a vacant school?” said Kyle Rucker, a Northsider business owner who works and owns rental properties near both schools. Rucker contracts music education courses out to several Northside schools through his production company, Ruck B Music, and has a child in a Northside school.
Rucker works out of the Oak Park Community Center, owned by Pillsbury United Communities, where North News is also located.
The district does not yet have a plan for either building, though they hope to have one by December following the completion of the District’s ongoing Comprehensive Assessment and Design process in the fall.
“We are aware that there is interest, but we feel it is important to look at the future of these schools comprehensively,” said DeVet.
According to DeVet the district hopes to reverse its enrollment problems and then reopen the schools as schools, but news reports from around 2007 discuss other strategic planning that the district completed in regards to the future of both schools and a lack of movement around those recommendations. According to those news reports, the district had worked with consulting firm McKinsey & Co who worked to help the district design a strategic reform plan to help stop the dwindling flow of enrollment. According to one MinnPost article from that time, Lincoln and Willard were crucial community assets, despite the poor - performance of Lincoln school. According to the article and the original report, Northside families did not feel comfortable or welcome in MPS’ Northside schools. According to those same news reports the recommendations were too costly at the time for the district and increasing enrollment was the higher priority.
MPS Director KerryJo Felder (District 2) who represents the Northside still sees that tension between Northsiders and MPS in her work.
“The trust isn’t there. I would like to really see the district do something positive for North Minneapolis. They can open up the schools and start the work organically, asking people what they want to see, instead of presenting their idea for what’s best,” said Felder. MPS voted to turn Gordon Elementary (which abuts Willard) into an early childhood learning center in 2014, but never acted on the vote, despite holding a ribbon cutting ceremony at the site. She wants to see that change happen and then see Willard used for affordable housing for single mothers and low income families. Felder wants to see Lincoln turned into a K-8 accelerated learning school.MPS Director KerryJo Felder believes a lack of trust between the district and Northsiders could be rebuilt if the district opens the vacant schools up and allows the community to access them.
According to Felder, the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council were interested in accessing the Lincoln School in partnership with Pillsbury United Communities and Design Good, a Chicago-based human-centered design firm, and a selection of other community partners, to envision a new future for Lincoln School and the Homewood neighborhood. According to NRRC Executive Director Martine Smaller, MPS would not allow them to access the building as it is waiting for the results of its assessment process.
Pillsbury United Communities owns North News, but has no editorial control over the paper’s content. A North News staff member was involved in this design process, but was not involved in the research and writing of this article.
“We understand that MPS has to make decisions based on numbers and things like that, but just to leave the buildings to sit there empty going on ten, twelve years. I just think that residents feel disrespected and disregarded. I think in terms of what I've noticed in our neighborhood, especially in the elementary and middle-school years, my neighbors are not choosing schools in North Minneapolis. They're choosing either charter schools, private schools, or public schools that you can opt into,” said Smaller, “It's been confounding to think that we have these two empty school buildings, and a lot of the residents are out-sourcing education. Again, it just seems like not a very responsive plan to the community in terms of our needs, by leaving those vacant.”
Both Willard and Lincoln have had tenants in the years since they were decommissioned as schools. MPS Plant Operations uses Lincoln as a training school for its engineers; it has licensed 11 new engineers through Lincoln. Patrick Henry High School’s Robotics team has used Lincoln’ gymnasium as a practice space. And Best Academy, one of the schools belonging to the now restructured Harvest Network of Schools, rented Lincoln as a school, though they left the building in June 2017. Willard Elementary School was used as a training ground for the Minneapolis Police Department in 2017 for a short term, several month contract, though DeVet noted the district would not be interested in renegotiating that contract at this point.
To reopen the buildings as schools, according to DeVet, would require a significant amount of capital funding and maintenance work as neither building is currently being served by regular janitorial services and minimal amounts of capital investment. The roofs would need to be checked, systems and technology updated, and building codes brought up to date. According to DeVet, the Lincoln cafeteria would need hundreds of thousands of dollars of rehab and renovation, alone.
According to MPS officials, the comprehensive assessment and design period and its recommendations should be completed by the end of the year. According to DeVet, the district is not interested in selling either property as it would be more costly to build or buy a new school in their place.