In big cities, Pew warns, districts often fetch less money for the properties than they were expecting. Old schools, some of which have inflexible layouts and are in tough neighborhoods, can languish on the real estate market for years.
The bottom line?
"The challenge of finding new uses for old buildings is daunting, and the downside of letting them sit idle can be significant," the report concludes.
The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote March 7 on recommendations to close 37 city schools and order changes at dozens more.
Since 2005, Pew found 12 big-city districts have sold or re-used 267 buildings. But more - 327 - unused buildings have not sold.
Philadelphia has some recent experience with closings. Last year, it put 12 vacant buildings on the market. Sales for six of those have been approved by the SRC, at prices ranging from $1 (the old Roberto Clemente Middle School, which had serious environmental issues) to $6 million, for the old West Philadelphia High building.
For the six recent sales, the district got 63 percent of asking price, the report concluded. Buyers also must agree to get their projects started promptly, and agree to financial penalties for delay.
But, Pew points out, buildings that don't sell right away mean continued expenses for districts - money for maintenance, security and insurance. And closed schools are often tough sells, in poor physical condition and located in neighborhoods considered undesirable by potential buyers.
Some districts have hired brokers to deal with sales after trying to manage the process themselves. Others have accepted lowball offers to move buildings quickly.
Districts like Philadelphia also have to compete with closed Catholic schools on the market. An official with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia pointed out that the church can make transactions more nimbly than the district. And, the church official said, some parochial schools are in better shape than public buildings.
As of December, there were six former Catholic schools for sale in Philadelphia, and 22 available for lease.
In nearly every district studied, Pew found, some vacant schools have become neighborhood trouble spots - trash-strewn places with boarded-up windows, havens for drug users and thieves who strip the building of plumbing and wiring.
Of the 12 cities Pew examined, Philadelphia is the only one to have a formal reuse policy, which gives preference, and a discount, to educational or nonprofit buyers.
Regulations, Pew points out, "can facilitate productive reuse. Or they can get in the way."
The edge Philadelphia's "adaptive reuse policy" gives to schools and nonprofits does give an edge to charters. Still, that doesn't mean rampant charter expansion is in the works. The SRC recently took the unusual step of suspending a portion of the state public school code to give itself the power to impose caps on charter schools.
And officials have already said they will approve no new free-standing charters for next school year, and have not yet decided if they will add charters the following year, either. (The district is turning over more of its own schools to charter operators, but those schools remain in their existing, district-owned buildings.)
Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said he realizes that even once the tough decision to close schools has been made, challenges remain.
"Our business is education," Hite said in December. "It is not economic development or moving real estate."
Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, email@example.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.