Locations of Schools

Sep 18, 2013

Locations of Schools

The process of determining where to build a new school is influenced by a number of factors but typically lacks a rigorous planning process considering a multitude of factors to determine the optimal location for a new public school. In fact, size, footprint, location, accessibility, walkability, etc. often take a back seat to finding a location that is the most cost effective and that offers the least amount of obstacles prior to development (environmental, storm-water, zoning, etc). While a well-defined planning process may not always be used, there are a number of regulatory requirements that influence the scale, scope, and location of new schools.

State Regulations

At the state level there are two main sources of regulation: the School Construction Law (105 ILCS 230/5-1), and the eligibility guidelines put forth by the Illinois Capital Development Board (ICDB). In both cases, the goal is twofold: to prioritize and regulate the awarding of construction grants, and to establish project standards. In Illinois the Capital Development Board serves as the construction management arm for Illinois state government. Whenever state money is involved in a non-transportation capital project, the CDB typically has an oversight and regulatory role. The CDB sets standards and design guidelines for a project's state funding eligibility. When designing schools, most school districts follow CDB's list of eligible and ineligible items whether or not capital money is available from the state. In a practical sense, the CDB has created a list of what should and should not be considered part of a school construction project, to receive state funds. Some items that are mentioned by the CDB are contrary to what is found in a numerous examples of "best practices" throughout the country. For instance, it is well documented that schools should be viewed as community centers and designed to be used 24 hours a day, year round (McAnn and Beaumont, Sullivan, National Summit on School Design, Bingler Quinn and Sullivan). In fact, research suggests that student learning, school effectiveness, family engagement, and community vitality are significantly improved when schools are designed as centers of the community (Martin, Melaville, and Shah). The CDB however states the following about community centers:

"Community Facilities: Although CDB encourages development of facilities intended for joint use by school and community, CDB's participation in the funding of such facilities is limited to those items required to meet the needs of the school's educational and support programs." (ICDB)

This approach does not encourage school districts to envision schools as community learning centers, an approach that has widespread national support. Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent the CDB from adopting an approach that encourages schools to be designed as community centers, since the grants they make are funded through tax revenues and their charge is not exclusive to building educational facilities. Another area that directly impacts the size and location of a school is acreage requirements. The CDB has established a maximum acreage formula as described below.

Illinois Capital Development Board Acreage Guidelines
Reasonable Land Acquisition Cost or the Actual Cost (whichever is less) and Associated Legal Fees:

  1. Maximum acreage allowances fundable by CDB are as follows:
    1. Elementary (PreK-6): 5 acres plus 1 acre per 100 students
    2. Middle/Junior High (7-9): 15 acres plus 1 acre per 100 students
    3. High School (9-12): 20 acres plus 1 acre per 100 students
  2. Minimum acreage allowance is 1.5 acres and requires approval from ISBE and CDB.

This formula should have the effect of capping the number of acres associated with a school however many municipalities have enacted ordinances that adhere to different standards.

Sources: Illinois Capital Development Board, Joint Committee on Administrative Rules: Title 71: Public Buildings, Facilities And Real Property Chapter
I: Capital Development Board Subchapter A: Rules Part 40 Standards for Award of Grants: School Construction, Program Section 40.130 Construction Grants

Local Regulations

One of the most important regulations, with regard to school sitings, is the municipal land/cash ordinance. The basic concept is that new developments cause or impose demands on public facilities and services. In order to help mitigate that effect, developers are required to either donate land or cash or both based on a formula adopted by that municipality. Typically the land/cash ordinance will have a formula and chart that states the minimum usable acres for each school classification (Elementary, Jr. High, High School, etc.) and the minimum number of students for each school classification which is used to calculate the land/cash requirement of a developer. Appendix 2, which is the Village of Oswego's Land/Cash Ordinance, is an example.

There are a variety of potential areas of concern associated with this approach and its outcome. The first concern is that the entire premise upon which this formula is based is derived from guidelines that are no longer supported by those who developed the guidelines. The guidelines referenced above were developed by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI). They had recommended large sites for new schools, primarily as a way to maximize cost efficiencies. The CEFPI's old guidelines called for a minimum of one acre of land for every 100 students plus 10 acres for an elementary school, 20 acres for a middle school, and 30 acres for a high school. Thus an elementary school with 600 students would need 16 acres; a middle school with 900 students, 29 acres; and a high school with 2,400 students, 54 acres (CEFPI). Over time these guidelines or formulas based on these guidelines become codified in municipal ordinances throughout the region. However, in 2004 CEFPI revisited those guidelines and now suggest that school districts use a flexible approach that is based on educational and community needs and not on a an acreage formula (CEFPI). Unfortunately, many municipalities in the CMAP region still have a formula in their municipal ordinances that is derived either wholly or partially from an outdated formula.

There are a number of examples of combined elementary and middle schools or Junior High campuses throughout the region. These multi-building campuses help to reduce the total building footprint and can create an environment that is more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. At the same time though, campus sizes of high schools remain a challenge. Many high schools in the suburbs, particularly new ones, are being built on campuses that are often 70 acres or more. A recommended high school size, in terms of acres and building capacity, is not listed in any "best practices" or state law. In fact, it appears to a byproduct of municipal ordinances associated with the land/cash requirement from developers. School districts also have a desire to have as much land as possible to accommodate possible future growth and to have athletic fields for practices.

Another issue is the variation in the land/cash ordinances from one municipality to another. As Table 3 demonstrates, there is a lack of consistency in both the number of students and acres per school classification. Nearly every school district outside the City of Chicago has boundaries which place a school district in more than one municipality, township, and in some cases county. This creates a scenario in which multiple variations of the land/cash ordinance are at play within the same school district. This can lead to variations in land or cash donations, potentially in school sizes and footprint, and complicates the planning process for a school district.

Table 3: Municipal Land/Cash Formulas: Acreage Requirements

Table 3 school

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