Gibsonville Elementary School in Gibsonville, North Carolina, near Greensboro, is only one of many aging schools in the Guilford County School District that sits abandoned and deteriorating.
Gibsonville Elementary, originally built to accommodate all ages of students when the area was less populated, was eventually converted to a grammar school. Then, in 2006, a new elementary school was built, leaving the old one with no useful function.
One outbuilding of the old Gibsonville Elementary is being used as the Gibsonville Public Library. Otherwise, the school is a magnet not for exceptional students but for restless teenagers, who reportedly break in and use the premises to party.
For Guilford County School District board members, though, it’s a sign of a more pervasive problem; aging schools whose historic value is high (and whose preservation seems almost like a mandate from the public) but whose original construction means the buildings contain varying amounts of toxic, expensive-to-remove asbestos.
Asbestos is a silicate-type mineral widely used during most of the last century in everything from insulation and floor tiles to oven gloves and brake linings. Asbestos was highly valued for its heat-resistant properties and the fact that it was naturally occurring, meaning recovering it from the ground was neither prohibitively expensive nor time-consuming.
Most uses occurred before the 1970s, when health officials first became aware of the dangers of asbestos, but it wasn’t until 1989 – when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in to limit its domestic use to one percent or less of product – that asbestos use declined sharply and any U.S. mining operations that hadn’t already done so extracted the last few tons of asbestos ore and closed their doors.
Unfortunately, the tons of asbestos that were used until then have created an asbestos legacy that sees about 2,500 Americans dying every year from mesothelioma, a slow-acting but highly lethal form of cancer caused only by asbestos. And this rate is expected to continue until about 2030, when the last of those exposed to asbestos in the construction, shipbuilding, railroad, electrical, firefighting, plumbing and telephone industries reach the end of the average 40-year dormancy period and begin to exhibit the classic symptoms of mesothelioma.
Most proposals to repurpose the old Gibsonville Elementary – as condos, or a 32-unit senior citizen’s housing unit – have fallen through, either because the school board was asking too much for the property, or because the cost of removing the asbestos – which would be mandated by state law whether the building were re-purposed or demolished – is daunting. In fact, a cost comparison done recently suggests that, while the building is worth about $500,000, the cost to remove asbestos is at least that, or more.
The issue about asbestos in occupied schools has been more than adequately addressed by provisions in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) instituted by the EPA in 1986. But issues about the cost of “decommissioning” unused schools, or unused public buildings in general, has never been tackled as part of a public policy mandate, even though asbestos trust funds like the Manville and Kaiser Trust provide for individual asbestos-related injuries and illnesses long after the industries themselves have either gone bankrupt or diversified into other venues.
It is, however, a problem becoming more and more common as the population of children entering schools in America continues to decline from its high in the 1960s. In fact, the number of school-age children in proportion to the overall population decreased by one half of a percentage point from 1980 through the present, leading experts to extrapolate that the proportion will decline to 24 percent by 2020 – down from 32 percent in 1965.
The decline is even more troubling in the face of the continuing decline of the value of the dollar, because future bond issues will be harder to get voter approval in these difficult economic times, and those few bond issues that do pass will accomplish fewer repairs, meaning only very compelling capital issues will be addressed.
Sources: Greensboro Rhinoceros Times, US Census Bureau, Childstats.gov