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Schools wave goodbye to students, hello to business

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Claude Turner saw the handwriting on the wall seven years ago. Enrollment in histiny, seven-school district in northern California had peaked at 3,500. Population projections predicted that declining enrollment was on the way -- and hard on its heels was sure to be a heated community debate on whether to shut down empty schools.

"We thought the schools should be thought of as so much space," says Dr. Turner, superintendent of the Belmont School District. "And we asked ourselves, 'What would business do with that space?'"

"They'd rent it," he answers.

Which is exactly what the school district has done for the past four years. The district -- which now has shrunk to 2,000 students --has kept all its schools open by renting out surplus classrooms to private businesses that range from day-care centers to a telephone solicitation business and a locomotive engineers' union.

The Belmont solution is what school administrators call "joint use" or occupancy -- meaning that at the same time children are in school, empty classrooms on the same campus or possibly in the same building are being used by private businesses or community-oriented service groups.

Although joint use is not a new idea -- some schools adopted it as long as a decade ago -- observers say it has drawn an increasing amount of attention as public support for schools has slackened and budgets hav tightened.

The concept has drawn fire from critics who argue that school officials are in the education business not real estate management But during a period in which changing demographics have forced school boards across the country to grapple with school closures -- and, more important, with angry parents who don't want their neighborhood school shut down -- joint-use policies have become increasingly popular as away to deal with the problem of the declining enrollment.

"I don't see this as a time of gloom, but a time of boom," says Robert Posilkin, coordinator of the joint occupancy program for Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools. "We can seize on closure and decline and really make use of them as wonderful opportunities.

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