Thieves ransacked a Southwest Baltimore school that closed six months ago, stripping essential fixtures — and, maybe, any hope of converting the building to a new use.

School leaders closed Steuart Hill Academic Academy in Union Square at the end of the last school year. Since then, neighbors and activists have discussed reopening the building as a community center and city officials considered converting it into a winter shelter.

Instead, the building languished. In September, someone broke into the building and stripped it of its copper piping, about $2,000 worth of material, according to a police report reviewed by The Baltimore Banner. At the time of the theft, there was on-site security but the building had no power and the cameras were “inoperable.”

Now, because of the extent of the damage, there are fears that Steuart Hill Academy faces the same future as some of the city’s other shuttered schools — demolition, or more extensive disrepair.

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“Once this was classrooms, and growth, and learning, and now it’s like having a graveyard in your community,” Cristina Duncan Evans, chapter chair of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said this year about the city’s vacant school buildings. “Often, it doesn’t get replaced with anything life-sustaining. It is a loss of opportunity, a place to grow, and share and connect.”

Steuart Hill Academic Academy, in Baltimore, Monday, May 15, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Many of the city’s unoccupied school buildings have endured similar troubles, according to the Department of General Services, citing vandalism and theft of copper wiring and plumbing as liabilities. Spokesman John Riggin said in July that the city agency expects to spend more than $2.1 million on school building maintenance this fiscal year, up from $1.5 million a year prior. It oversees about 20 surplus school buildings, Riggin said, with more to come.

Riggin said this month that the building’s electrical and plumbing systems have been rendered “unusable.” All but six surplus schools have suffered damages, he said.

“[The Department of General Services] continues to coordinate vendor services to improve security and maintenance measures to prevent further damages,” he said.

Members of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners initially recommended Steuart Hill Academic Academy, which served children from kindergarten through fifth grade, close at the end of the 2022 school year. The school system kept it running through the end of the 2023 academic year, giving advocates enough time to file a Maryland State Board of Education appeal and a circuit court challenge before the school year ended.

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Once the school system shuts down a school, it has the opportunity to keep the building before offloading it to the city. If the city has no use for it, officials in the Department of Planning are usually tasked with finding a new use or user. Only a few of the 30 schools to have shuttered in the past decade have been sold to new owners; a few others have been leased or are listed as “sale pending,” and the rest have been demolished or are somewhere in the pipeline.

Community groups have fought to preserve the building for another purpose.

The campaign to resuscitate the school effectively burned out in late October when a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge dismissed the case, online court records show. The state board in March also affirmed the Baltimore school board’s decision to shut Steuart Hill down.

Amy Petkovsek, executive director of the Community Law Center, which helped represent the advocates in court, said the case crumbled on early procedural grounds and not on its merits.

The legal group plans to hold workshops across the city next year for communities to learn how to take action against pending closures early in the process, Petkovsek said, to avoid another case like Steuart Hill from unfolding.

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“I’m concerned it furthers a very true narrative that communities are powerless,” Petkovsek said. “We’re going to do everything we can to change that narrative, to give families and community members the legal tools they need, and the information they need, to fight this in the future.”

In addition to their expense, the vacant school buildings have posed several problems for city officials and community members, who have argued that they have closed in primarily Black neighborhoods and forced families there to make tough choices about their children’s future while more affluent families remain relatively unencumbered. In Steuart Hill’s case, several families said other nearby schools were not far enough away to qualify for free, private bus transportation but too far for young children to walk.

At the same time, Baltimore City Public School System officials have argued that low-enrolled schools can have negative ramifications for students who may not have access to the same quality education as schools with more pupils. Having more seats filled guarantees schools more funding, which they can spend on teachers, enrichment and other special activities. School officials also argued that maintaining Steuart Hill had grown too expensive and that poor building quality can interfere with learning, attendance and engagement.

After Steuart Hill closed, city officials met with community members and discussed converting it into a winter shelter — a recommendation that some neighbors and residents opposed. By October, after the burglary, city officials had shelved the winter shelter proposal, a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services confirmed.

Bif Browning, president of the Union Square Association, called the closure of the school a “traumatic, negative experience” for the community. He’s worked to cobble together a group of investors who could submit a bid to acquire the facility, which he would like to see converted into a multipurpose space that houses enrichment activities for kids.

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The facility features an auditorium, gymnasium and cafeteria, which Browning considers too valuable for the neighborhood to lose. He also acknowledged that building conversions can be challenging and might not be the best use of Steuart Hill, which dates to the 1960s, according to Baltimore Heritage.

“The city is working to possibly tear down the building or try to find some other developer use for it,” Browning said in October, adding that his proposal would at least keep the character of the building alive. “It was a unique design in the ’60s and an open-floor-plan school that you don’t find often. That makes it very easy to do this.”

Representatives of the planning department did not respond to a request for comment about the building, but they’ve said previously that the conversion process should be collaborative as well as practical. They’ve also stressed that proposals must be financially feasible and that interested parties may also be obligated to take on the debt service associated with a building, which can add tens of thousands of dollars in costs.

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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