Potential Strategies to Address School Siting
A number of strategies identified in this section are based on the recommendations put forth in the National Governor's Association's (NGA) May 2007 Issue Brief, "Integrating Schools into Healthy Community Design" (Springer). In the brief, the NGA recommends the following:
- Reducing or eliminating minimum acreage requirements for schools;
- Revising school funding formulas to promote renovation or expansion of existing sites;
- Requiring that schools be located in areas designated for growth that already have sufficient existing infrastructure to support school facilities; and
- Creating, funding, promoting, and implementing Safe Routes to School Programs.
As mentioned before, all of the above are relevant to the CMAP region, but need to be tailored to the current situation. The following are potential strategies for addressing issues associated with school siting in the region:
1. Revisiting acreage requirements for schools, particularly High Schools. The state, through the CDB, has set forth maximum acreage guidelines while most municipalities set forth minimum guidelines.
This inherent conflict needs to be resolved. Furthermore, variations in land/cash ordinances among municipalities can cause unnecessary variations and complexities for a school district with multiple jurisdictions within their boundaries. Since the land/cash ordinance is designed to provide resources for school districts, simply eliminating this requirement is not practical.
A joint commission, comprised of municipal and school district leaders from throughout the region, could be formed to examine this issue and put forth recommendations leading to some regional consistency, which could solve many of these issues. By doing so they would provide school districts with both the resources (land or cash) that they need, while also addressing acreage requirements issues.
2. Create a program that brings together municipal planners, school officials, and other relevant parties to develop and implement a comprehensive planning process for school districts to use when selecting a school site and designing/building a school that is based on established planning principles and current best practices.
Illinois did put together the School Construction Guideline Task Force to address a number of issues related to school construction in 2000. The results included a report to
"…offer you the guidance of others and, most importantly, encourage you to plan as you consider building new educational facilities. It is not an encyclopedia of school construction; rather it identifies some of the issues and processes that may save school districts time, money and effort on their projects." (ICDB 2000)
In addition to those items mentioned in the report noted above, there is a number of planning policy recommendations which are commonly referenced in the literature:
- Design schools with compact building designs that lessen the amount of land used. This may involve constructing more multi-story buildings.
- Encourage schools to invest in their existing schools before building new schools. This can be done through financial incentives from the CDB, through waivers or zoning variances from a municipality or county, or through partnerships with other units of local government that will either help financially or via some other means to keep a school located in a site with existing infrastructure.
- Locate schools in areas that will encourage walking and biking.
- Mix land uses (combining schools with park facilities for example) or by building schools near other destinations so that trips may be combined.
- Preserve open space (this can be done by redeveloping old schools or sites that are no longer in use).
- Provide a variety of transportation choices so that cars and school buses are not the overwhelming majority of trips to and from a school.
- Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective so that the process is the same both within a school district and among school districts.
- Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration so that the community has both a say and vested interest in the school. This can help to make it a community centered school.
One way for this to be achieved is for CMAP to establish a program similar in nature to the School and Communities Program that the Atlanta Regional Commission has established. The program recognizes "the fact that school and community planning are predominantly conducted mutually exclusive of each other, but are inextricably linked…" This program would bring together school districts, local government officials, and municipal planners to develop a comprehensive planning process, provide technical assistance, and share best practices. In addition, it would be useful to have CMAP provide technical assistance to school districts so that they may have a better understanding of planning issues and the relationships that schools have to other aspects of the community.
3. Design Schools to be Community-Centered
Schools that are community-centered provide numerous benefits, not only to students, but to the community and the taxpayers that often are asked to fund the construction of a school. Some of the benefits include (CEFPI 2004):
- Promoting a sense of safety and security.
- Building connections between members of the school and the community.
- Engaging students in learning.
- Fostering environmental stewardship.
- Promoting economic development.
- Strengthening neighborhoods.
- Improving human and environmental health.
4. Create environments that encourage students to walk or bike (IMCA).
Use the Safe Routes to School programs and work with communities to develop plans that will enhance biking and walking opportunities. This includes using the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Safe Routes to School toolkit, SR2S (SR2S Toolkit). The toolkit focuses on four areas: engineering, enforcement, education, and encouragement. Examples include strategies to increase pedestrian safety and access around schools such as:
- Educating children about safe pedestrian skills.
- Generating enthusiasm among parents and children about the issue
- Mapping and publicizing designated safe routes.
- Engineering for traffic calming and pedestrian safety.
- Patrolling routes and chaperoning children as they travel to and from school.
- Increased enforcement of traffic laws.
5. Work to ensure that a minimum of 50% of the students can walk or bike to school (Beaumont and Pianca).
There are a number of ways this can be accomplished including using best practices related to design elements (CEFPI 2004), (Dover, Kohl & Partners and Chael, Cooper & Associates) and by using traffic modeling techniques that can be used to estimate travel modes and patterns (EPA) schools can use alternative analyses to see the potential effects that a different locations can have on automobile traffic, walking, biking, etc. This information can then be incorporated into the site selection process.
With the U.S. Congress poised to provide billions of dollars a year (21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act) in new money to build, modernize, and expand schools throughout the county, and with continued talk of a state infrastructure program that would also provide billions of dollars in school construction funds, now is the time to develop a comprehensive school planning process. A well designed planning process can be used to generate outcomes that benefit students, the community, the environment, the region and state as a whole. Some of the desired outcomes that would be a by-product of a comprehensive planning process are listed below:
- Improving the health of students and adults.
- Improving air quality in and around schools and in the region.
- Improving safety around schools.
- Bringing consistency to the planning process for schools districts, the public, and developers.
- Encouraging schools to be developed as community-centered schools.
- Using green building techniques to lessen the environmental impacts of a school.
- Having school planning efforts become integrated with other community planning efforts.
- Enhance educational achievement.
The capital development board has initiated aspects of this process through both their school construction rules and 2 publications. What they offer, however, is guidance and encouragement to plan—but not a requirement to do so. In doing so they are respecting the long established history associated with local control and decision making. The challenge is to have a consistent process so that outcomes and goals are relatively similar, while allowing enough flexibility to incorporate local values and priorities. The planning process should provide a common framework that would yield similar benefits and outcomes throughout the region while enabling enough local variation to occur so that each new school or addition looks and functions in a manner that is a by-product of local preferences.