Education

Edge-Ucation

What compels communities to build schools in the middle of nowhere?
by | March 2004
 

There can't be many people in Ohio who have heard of Henry Linn. But they're certainly becoming familiar with his work.

Ohio is four years into a massive $10.5 billion school-building program, which is expected to leave very few communities untouched. For many school districts, the prospect of millions of dollars in state aid has been enormously appealing; faced with the question of whether to renovate existing schools, or to abandon them and build anew--often out on the edge of town--they're opting for the new.

There's a reason for this, and that's where Linn comes in. A half- century ago, the Columbia University education professor wrote an article for a trade magazine, American School and University, in which he suggested that if the cost of renovating a school was more than half what it cost to build new, school districts should swallow the extra expense and build new. It's unclear how Linn arrived at this disdain for the old, but until recently, his thinking appeared to hold the force of scripture within school facilities circles. "If you track the literature," says Royce Yeater, the Midwest director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "it starts to appear in footnotes, then one study refers back to another.... But still, it all comes back to one man's opinion. If you look at the original article, there's no studies, there's no nothin' behind this. It is clearly an old wives' tale."

Perhaps, but it's an old wives' tale with legs. Many states, Ohio included, use what's now known as the "percentage rule" in deciding whether schools should be renovated or replaced. The actual percentages vary from state to state, but the rules all amount to the same thing: a preference for creating new schools over preserving old ones. In Ohio's case, until a few years ago, a school district couldn't get state money for renovation if it cost more than two- thirds of building new. These days, the "two-thirds rule" is just a guideline, but many school districts, with the encouragement of the state, follow it anyway. Officially, the Ohio School Facilities Commission is neutral on the question. Still, it has a clear, if unstated, preference. "There are a lot of advantages in building new," says spokesman Rick Savors. "You can get into situations when you try to renovate where you have no clue what the actual costs will be; just ask anyone who has renovated a kitchen or bathroom." Which is a part of the reason why, of the 1,300 schools the commission has looked at so far, 790 will be abandoned.

Six of these are in the town of Galion, Ohio, which is giving up its four neighborhood elementary schools, its middle school and its high school, built in 1917 and housing a pipe organ believed to be one of only two of its kind left in the world. An old industrial town about 60 miles north of Columbus, Galion is crawling back from a series of plant closures that began in the 1970s and, by the mid-1990s, had left its downtown largely vacant. In recent years, a revitalization program has generated new life there. But although most storefronts are occupied, the future is still tenuous. As Pauline Eaton, a member of the city council, puts it, "We still have a long way to go, because we were in really bad shape."

Now downtown Galion is about to lose the high school and middle school that sit at its very heart. "Renovation," says school board president Ken Green, "is completely out of the question." The school board has come to this conclusion, he says, in part because the state encouraged it to do so, and in part because of a sense of "what we had versus what we could have." The board is hoping it can build the new schools on 29 acres not far from downtown that were given to the school district last year, but the site presents some challenges, so there is also a strong possibility that the schools will end up outside of town, at one of two new highway interchanges planned for Galion. That prospect galls Eaton. "Our whole revitalization program is built around smart growth and historic preservation," she says. "We also know that the area around the interchanges will become our sprawl area. So we've tried to come up with a plan for how the growth will take place, so that it doesn't suck everything out of downtown again." The problem, Eaton notes, is that where schools go up development inevitably follows.

This seems an obvious point, but it has been only within the past few years that the issue has taken wing around the country. Driven in part by concerns about stemming urban sprawl, in part by movements promoting smaller, neighborhood schools as antidotes to ailing educational quality, and in part by burgeoning concern over keeping community cores intact, many people are asking whether it makes sense to keep putting up large new schools on the edge of town.

It would be a stretch to say that this "anti-school-sprawl" movement has swept the nation. "I would bet that 60 or 70 percent of the time," says the National Trust's Yeater, "we find the bureaucracy and prevailing attitude immovable; we're losing more schools than we're saving." Yet the issue is picking up steam, from local planning boards to legislatures and governors' offices, and the attention has had two notable effects: It has turned a spotlight on the assumptions that are embedded in state school-building guidelines; and it is beginning to call into question the relatively free hand that school systems have enjoyed in shaping community development patterns.

BIPARTISAN CONCERN

If the national effort to get a handle on school sprawl had a single catalyst, it was the publication in 2000 of a report by the National Trust called "Why Johnny Can't Walk to School." "We were getting more and more desperate requests for help from community groups who were finding that due to state policies, as well as misperceptions about what they could do with older buildings, they were losing neighborhood schools," says Constance Beaumont, its author.

The report was careful to cast the issue as reaching far beyond preservation for preservation's sake. "Schools that hold the memories of generations are disappearing," it commented. "Handsome school buildings--landmarks that inspire community pride--are being discarded for plain, nondescript boxes that resemble factories. Increasingly, a stressful drive through congested traffic separates parents and children from ever-more distant schools. Like the movement of post offices and other public buildings from downtowns to outlying commercial strips, the migration of schools from settled neighborhoods to middle-of-nowhere locations is one more factor weakening the ties that once brought people together."

The report served its purpose, drawing national attention to the issue, and winding up in the hands of countless citizens standing up before school-board meetings called to consider plans for a new school. Yet even without the Trust's report, it's likely that the growing size and on-the-fringe location of schools would have become an issue. For what's striking about the various state and local efforts to address school sprawl is they were not sparked by a single set of political concerns.

In Michigan, for instance, the matter is being spurred by a growing understanding that even while the state's economy and population are holding steady, land is being eaten up at a ferocious rate. "What's happening," says Mac McLelland, of the Michigan Land Use Institute, "is parents move to good-quality school districts around urban areas, they expand and grow and then have to expand more to meet the demand. At that point, they can take an incremental approach and add on, or they can build a new facility because they figure they'll need the space in the future, so they hopscotch development out toward the rural area. And then people say, 'Hey! They've got a nice new school, let's move there.'"

In response, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm has launched an initiative to promote denser development and preserve open space, and MLUI and the state's Chamber of Commerce have joined forces to tackle school sprawl. The two organizations don't always see eye to eye, but in this case, the Chamber's concern with how tax dollars are being spent and MLUI's focus on land use have brought them together. Indeed, says Bill Rustem, senior vice president of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, the very breadth of the political ground covered by the two groups makes it likely that their proposals--which were due out last month--will get attention. "Anytime you get a group on one end of the spectrum and one on the other saying, 'This is a problem,' the inclination of legislators and agencies is going to be to deal with it," he says.

In South Carolina, the matter has gone beyond the talking point--and has led to the most far-reaching legislative effort in the country. The issue first surfaced in a 1998 study of how difficult it was for children to walk to school, sponsored by the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. The study found that schools built before 1973 had far larger percentages of children able to walk to them than schools built later, simply because they were placed within neighborhoods or other central locations.

For a few years, only the League seemed to care much, but then, in 2002, Republican Mark Sanford won the governor's race. Before taking office, Sanford convened a task force to examine quality-of-life issues in the state; its members found themselves agreeing that school-building decisions needed attention. "What they said," recalls Michelle Sinkler, director of the League's land-use program, "was that they were all seeing an alarming trend of mega-schools built far from population centers, and because of that they were seeing a degradation in the quality of education as well as exacerbation of growth- management issues."

Sanford didn't wait long to respond. In his State of the State address last year, he launched a campaign to promote smaller, neighborhood schools, decrying the "construction of massive, isolated schools" and their tendency to "accelerate developmental sprawl into our rural areas and what comes with it--increased car trips, lengthened bus routes and a disappearing countryside." Sanford and a small, bipartisan group of legislators worked together to come up with a bill to attend to several of the forces driving school sprawl: the state's requirement that new schools sit on large lots; a variety of building codes that made it difficult to convert existing commercial sites into school buildings; and a lack of limits on how large schools would be allowed to grow. In the end, only the first two were addressed in last year's legislative session; Sanford's bid to cap school size died in committee.

Even so, eliminating the so-called "acreage standard" is a significant step. Like Henry Linn's percentage rule, it's a longstanding part of the armature of school-building regulations that push school districts to consider older schools outmoded, since they tend to sit on smaller parcels; instead, minimum-acreage standards encourage districts to look for new-school sites outside settled areas. And like the percentage rule, these standards have no clear roots. "We never could find a definitive answer as to where those acreage standards came from," says Constance Beaumont. Many states have simply adopted the standards established by the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International, which suggests 10 acres for elementary schools, 20 for middle schools, and 30 for high schools, plus additional acreage depending on the number of students at the school. These numbers were developed in an era when most school building was taking place on suburban sites, where land is more plentiful.

BIG VS. SMALL

The truth is, there are any number of guidelines, regulations and concerns that convince school districts they're better off building large new schools on large sites. In the Cincinnati suburb of Glendale, for instance, school administrators are considering abandoning the town's 1901, Spanish-style elementary school, which sits in the heart of the village, despite clear opposition from residents and a school board that seems to prefer renovation. Glendale is a wealthy community, so the state isn't contributing any money; instead, the issue seems to be coming down to school design.

"The big thing now is 'adjacencies,'" says Albert Slap, the PTA president and a local lawyer. "We've gotten past the fact that there's enough square footage on the current site--they can build behind the school. But now they're talking about the 'important adjacency' of the gym, the lunchroom, the music room and the playground. The argument goes that it's important for kids to be able to do all these things grouped in one area and not have to go through the building, with all the noise and the disruption and how far it might be for them to walk."

Similarly, school districts often make the argument that, given their financial pressures, they can offer the full range of educational opportunities to students only if they can build large schools on large parcels in order to reap the benefits of economies of scale. This is one of the reasons it's not unusual to find high schools and even middle schools--such as the one containing 4,000 7th- and 8th- graders that recently opened in Cicero, Illinois--that are larger than many colleges.

For proponents of renovation or those who favor the construction of smaller, more centrally located schools, these various arguments all have counter-arguments. Is putting the lunchroom next to the gym, for instance, really more important than holding on to a school that has defined its community for more than a century? As for size, "Small alone doesn't make for a good school," says Michael Klonsky, who runs the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois in Chicago, "but in a big school you can't do the things that good research shows are needed: personalization; building a professional community among the educators; making the curriculum relevant to the lives of the students and the teachers; making the school safe. These big schools have 10 to 20 times the level of serious violent incidents as smaller schools."

Indeed, driven by these considerations and others, some school districts are opting for smaller, centrally located schools. This is the thinking behind one of the more striking neighborhood schools efforts in the country--the ambitious school-building program launched by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Facing the prospect of a 200,000-seat shortfall over the next 10 years, L.A. Unified has two phases of construction underway--the first, costing $3.8 billion, will deliver 78,000 new seats in 80 new schools and 60 major additions; the second, approved by voters last November, will add another $1.5 billion to build or expand some 40 schools. A third bond measure is on the ballot this month; it would add another $1.7 billion for new construction.

Many of the first-phase schools, which were planned three or four years ago, will be large, albeit in neighborhoods with a lot of students. But in the past few years, led by school superintendent Roy Romer, the former governor of Colorado, L.A. Unified has rethought its plans, and now intends to build smaller schools, although some will share a campus with others. "When the program started," says Jim McConnell, the district's chief facilities executive, "we were facing a compelling imperative to get seats built. But now, we have a small- school philosophy. We gained confidence that we would satisfy the most severe overcrowding, and Governor Romer came to believe that he needed to improve secondary education, and the way to do that was to move away from huge high schools to smaller learning academies."

CATALYST FOR RENEWAL

Just as schools going up on the periphery of a community can promote sprawl, so a decision to build or renovate in the central city can generate revitalization. In Omaha, Nebraska, the public school system will open a 650-student elementary school on the edge of downtown, which Omaha Public Schools decided was warranted because of the number of students living in the area. Students who will go to the school are already in temporary space nearby, and the impact on the neighborhood has been dramatic, notes Mark Warneke, the public schools' director of buildings and grounds. "There's been more involvement of parents around that school now," he says, "and fewer problems in that community because parents are walking their children to school and there are more activities in the evening. Also, now that the school is being built, you're seeing more renovation going on around it."

Downtown Spokane, Washington, saw a similar impact after officials decided to renovate Lewis and Clark High School. The school system bought the entire block next to the high school in order to give it room for expansion, and the renovation--finished in 2001--has been so successful that the school's population has grown since it reopened, as students from other areas opt to go there instead of their local school. Just as important, says Michael Edwards, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, the renovation has stabilized a part of town that badly needed the help. "If LC had left downtown," he says, "I don't know what would be going on down at that end. It would eventually be eaten up by [the nearby] hospital, but in the meantime it would just be parking lots and derelict buildings. LC showed a certain commitment to downtown, and it's been part of the renaissance going on here."

COORDINATED PLANNING

For all the debate over percentage rules and acreage guidelines, adjacency requirements and economies of scale, cases such as Galion, Glendale, Omaha and Spokane serve as strong reminders of one overriding fact: School building decisions have an impact that stretches far beyond the education of a community's students. Which is why those concerned about stemming school sprawl are beginning to focus on one key consideration: Not HOW decisions get made, but WHO makes them. They're questioning the freedom that school boards and administrators have had to weigh their own criteria separately from the wishes of other public bodies.

You might take as an example a high school built about four years ago in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, a suburb of Charleston. The 3,000- student school went up at the edge of town, within walking distance of none of its students, on land that developers made available to the school district in anticipation that the school's presence would spark demand for development. Which is exactly what the county recently approved. As the Coastal Conservation League's Michelle Sinkler puts it, "Those 2,000 acres around the school, it's going to be big-box nightmare hell."

What's most striking about all this, though, is that the school is there despite the fact that Mount Pleasant imposed an urban growth boundary designed to limit growth precisely where the school sits and the new development has been approved. In other words, the school district simply ignored the town's effort to get a grip on how it develops.

That has sparked a bill in this year's legislative session by the local state representative, Republican Ben Hagood, that would require contiguous municipalities, local transportation authorities and school districts to coordinate their land-use planning. "Growth is happening, and I'm not anti-growth," says Hagood. "But I'm for better planning of the growth. The idea is to plan where you build and build where you plan."

The state that has gone furthest in encouraging school districts to pay attention to overall planning priorities is Maryland, where former Governor Parris N. Glendening's "Smart Growth" initiative made it hard for districts to get state support for building projects that would promote sprawl. These days, although schools no longer have to be in a so-called "priority funding area" to get state financing--a move the state made in an effort to help out rural schools--proposed projects do score higher on the state's point system if they're in established neighborhoods or within corporate limits.

Elsewhere, getting school districts to play ball with other public agencies is likely to be difficult. The attitude of many state school board associations is pretty well summed up by Ed Dunlap, who runs the North Carolina School Board Association. "Our position is very clear," he says. "It is the responsibility of the local board of education to make decisions about where schools are sited. Period."

Even so, in states such as South Carolina and Michigan, where policy makers are starting to take a hard look at school sprawl, it may just be a matter of time before school districts' planning independence comes up for review. "I think there is increased understanding that much of this whole land-use issue relates back to government decision making," says Michigan's Bill Rustem. "The rules of the game are set by public agencies. And, of course, school boards are public agencies."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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