2016 White Paper - School Siting
The Georgia Conservancy believes that through modernizing state regulations local school districts can achieve greater flexibility in selecting school sites, increase creativity in school design and reduce the community costs of building and operating schools. To achieve this, any regulatory changes must include thoughtful school site requirements that focus on improving land planning practices and surfacing the true costs of school location choices. As a result, taxpayers and communities may get smaller, more walkable schools that are better attuned to the needs of children, experience reduced natural resource consumption, and see a marked improvement in overall health and well-being.
Why is school siting important? The placement and design of our school facilities are critical to planning and maintaining sustainable communities. School siting decisions have long term impacts which affect not only students and parents, but also the larger community.
Schools effect commutes and traffic congestion. A huge portion of traffic congestion can be attributed to the decisions that parents and students make about getting their children to school, and these decisions are in turn largely impacted by the siting and design of schools. Larger schools located outside of established communities increase the number of cars on the road, while community-based schools that reduce travel distances result in fewer car/bus trips. This saves on transportation costs, reduces traffic congestion and helps lower emissions. When parents feel that roadways surrounding schools are unsafe for their children to walk or ride a bicycle they are more likely to choose to drive to school, thereby creating a negative cycle of traffic congestion.
In some communities, school trips can account for almost 30 percent of morning peak hour traffic. Such traffic affects not only school occupants but also the entire surrounding community in terms of its safety, functionality, sustainability and well-being.
Schools effect public health and well-being. The siting and design of a school impacts the health of students and those in the surrounding community, either negatively or positively. In particular, siting and design that encourages walking or biking can increase student health through physical exercise and reduce the risks of heart disease and obesity, while larger schools on the community fringe, however, offer fewer opportunities for physical exercise to and from school. In addition, increased walking and biking in place of motorized vehicle dependence contributes to less greenhouse gas emissions and better air quality, lowering the risk of asthma and other ailments related to poor air quality. Meeting basic health needs of students through school siting and planning decisions contributes to the improvement of local quality of life for the entire community.
Schools effect taxes and property values. Maximizing the ability of students to walk or bike to school can minimize the school’s transportation budget, operating costs and land costs for extra parking acreage – saving money for the school district and taxpayers. Whether or not a school’s location imposes high transportation costs can significantly impact a community’s financial health. Placing and retaining schools within existing neighborhoods can also reduce the need and expenses for new infrastructure and, in some case, can even use existing facilities and resources already present within the established community – saving both money and natural resources. Finally, schools also have a significant effect on the total payroll and property values of the local community. Besides the effects of education itself on economic development, social opportunity and wage studies have found that small, local and community-centered facilities tend to have a positive impact on a community’s economy.
Schools effect community equity and quality. A family’s resources play a significant role in determining housing location, transportation choice, and involvement in extracurricular activities and a number of other decisions. For low-income families, such resources can be limiting. Smart school siting within existing communities has the potential to open up opportunities and provide families in high-poverty, resources-limited neighborhoods with easier access and the ability to take part in more activities.
Over the past few decades, siting policies have largely encouraged the building of larger, greenfield schools rather than renovating existing ones, leaving many already low-income neighborhoods to fall further into disrepair. When new schools are sited in communities vulnerable to hardship, they are often located on less than desirable properties, thereby exacerbating the inequities already faced in such communities. Holistic school planning and policy can, instead, encourage investment in neighborhoods that are lacking in physical, social and economic assets, making much needed contributions to the social equity of a community.
The School Siting Problem in Georgia
Since the 1960s, comprehensive planners have largely relinquished the matter of school siting to school districts. During a time of emphasis on measuring public education effectiveness, issues of school siting and land use around demography and geography have been largely ignored.
Public school planning is often conducted with little reference to land use, transportation, urban design, community development, or environmental planning goals. Moreover, school boards, driven by both educational goals and public policies governing schools, seek large greenfield sites to locate new facilities. Consequently, school locations and design often act counter to long range community goals. The result is a fragmented growth pattern wherein new schools are built on the urban fringe that, in turn, attracts new residential and commercial development, creating a cycle of sprawl and encouraging longer travel to school distances.
Georgia has some of the largest schools in the country, yet the total number of schools are declining. Why is this? Larger schools are easier to fund and build, and because many national and state policies encourage larger schools.
Georgia’s school financing policies and minimum acreage requirements are driving local school districts to build new schools that are larger and farther from the communities they serve.
In 1985, the General Assembly passed the Quality Basic Education (QBE) act, which, along with subsequent amendments forms the current legal framework that guides the operation of public schools in Georgia. To measure the number of students in a school, the QBE Act uses what is known as the weighted full-time equivalent (FTE) student counts instead of the actual student population.
The QBE Act provides base level funding to help school systems pay teacher and staff salaries and the construction, renovation and modification of schools. To qualify for this funding, however, schools must meet minimum student requirements standards. School systems are keen on making sure that the FTE requirement for each school is met, giving school districts an incentive to increase the size of schools to make sure that they far exceed the threshold.
Minimum acreage requirements outlined by the QBE give school districts additional reasons to build larger schools. The minimum acreage requirements ask schools to use parcels that are much larger than most available in-town land acreage, forcing many schools to locate sites outside of the communities they serve. The Georgia Department of Education Guidelines state that “although minimum usable acreages are established, large acreages are highly desirable.” Size requirements are purely regulatory and require no vote by the General Assembly to change.
While the advantages of larger schools might be more readily seen upfront (eligible for more funding, economies of scale, increased diversity, increased program offerings and on-campus recreation facilities), the current regulatory framework discounts the benefits that neighborhood schools offer as drivers of community investment.
The Georgia Conservancy is one of the strongest advocacy groups for quality school siting decisions in the state. In only a few years, the Georgia Conservancy has helped bring greater awareness to this issue in Georgia, as well as in other states, by educating school officials, community planners and the general public about school siting issues. The Georgia Conservancy has produced trainings and a User’s Guide to interpreting the U.S. EPA’s School Siting Guidelines that include Georgia-specific concerns and regulations. To further this research, the Georgia Conservancy partnered with the Georgia Tech College of Architecture to look at these issues and how school siting decisions may vary from community to community, as well as how transit accessibility can positively impact school siting.
Through this body of research, the Georgia Conservancy proposes a number of recommendations to promote sustainable school siting practices at both the state and local levels.
The school siting challenges faced by communities and the often negative consequences produced by current siting requirements can be addressed in various ways, including changing current policies, maximizing alternate transportation options and incentivizing greater coordination within both communities and government.
A number of current policies could be adjusted to improve the siting of our schools:
- Replacing minimum acreage requirements with maximum acreage requirements will work to lessen the number of schools sited on large lots in fringe areas and to help to reduce the overall footprint of schools and their surrounding facilities.
- Distinguishing between school sites located in urban, suburban, or rural land areas for the purposes of siting policy will provide for more accurate measurements of acreage requirements, building footprint, and land needed for parking, recreation facilities, circulation and natural resources.
- Incentivizing school siting in in-town areas or by adaptive reuse of existing buildings, as well as specifying that schools be sited close to existing infrastructure rather than in greenfields will help mitigate or reduce the sprawl that often follows school locations, increase the value of existing properties, encourage public and private investment in the community, and reinforce the tax base available to schools.
- Mandating individual school master plans that address over-capacity, expansion and phasing opportunities, and possible demographic shifts in the community will provide decision makers with the tools to improve the longevity of facilities.
Increasing alternative transportation options for students and school staff can address the health and natural resource issues that are directly and indirectly tied to where our schools are sited and their design. This can be achieved through the following measures:
- Given the relationship between the distance of one from their school and the probability of walking or biking, school districts should consider redrawing attendance zones to maximize walkability and bikeability.
- To maximize pedestrian and bike accessibility, school districts should consider working with local municipalities to construct multi-use trails and additional infrastructure, such as sidewalks, speed bumps and curb extensions, which improves the quality of walking and biking commutes.
- To lessen the burden of transit costs on parents and students, school districts should work with transit agencies to promote and offer free or subsidized passes directly to students.
A strong, well-coordinated relationship between schools, stakeholders and local government could help repair the divide between schools and the communities that they serve and could help reduce both the financial and facilities costs incurred by all. This can be achieved through the following measures:
- To maximize potential and efficiency of tax-funded facilities, school districts should encourage the shared use of facilities between a school and the community, design school facilities that support shared use, and work to create a governance structure to manage shared use of facilities.
- To provide the community with a clearer vision of future growth, the state should require that local comprehensive plans account for future school sites and that school systems review applicable school comprehensive plans when school siting.
- Lastly, to allow for greater input by all those affected, the state should require that school districts have a school siting committee composed of school board members, local government officials and community members to discuss potential school sites.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has stated, “few public institutions are more crucial to sustaining community than schools.” The Georgia Conservancy aims to allow for greater flexibility for local districts and their communities to locate and construct schools that reflect their priorities and to shine a brighter light on true costs (infrastructure, property tax, public health and natural resource consumption) of school location choices. Adjusting state policies to modernize thinking around school siting would allow for greater local choice, broader creativity within the school facility design profession, and greater coordination with local governments to share facilities and costs, all while becoming more efficient with our land use and use of taxpayer dollars.