May 12, 2010

JAPA: Funding Model and Siting Guidelines
Must Change for Community Schools to Work

The publication of "School Siting: Contested Visions of the Community School" in the Spring 2010 issue of Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) warns that current school funding models, the changing needs of communities and the ongoing debate about the definition of "community" schools must be resolved if planners are to be successful in the effective development of schools. 

The school siting debate underscores issues on how we should build our communities, utilizing economies of scale and cheap transportation, or focusing on local pride and connections within neighborhoods. There is a strong correlation between school siting and associated community development and this must be recognized if urban and community planning is to become more effective.

The argument about whether "community schools" means schools that are small and intimately linked to neighborhoods, or schools that service the needs of entire localities, lies at the heart of the debate. Without flexibility in state school construction and siting policies however, planners are being forced to develop schools using planning and construction guidelines developed last century.

These guidelines, often requiring minimum acreage, were formalized in the post-war years and little has changed since the '50s and '60s. There are significant tradeoffs associated with different school sizes, which make a fundamental difference to the location and services of any given school. Many planners are concerned that this has led to school sprawl, where schools are located on large campuses away from the residential areas they serve, eliminating neighborhood schools. These means fewer children can walk to school, increasing pollution and congestion and reducing community connection.

However, there are problems in focusing on the development of small, local community schools, including the challenges of achieving racial diversity goals, desire for athletic fields, increasing numbers of charter schools, educational quality and federal efforts to support school choice. At the same time, issues of sourcing land for school siting, local sewage and transport availability all have an impact on the decision about school siting.

An unprecedented amount of school construction is currently under way, and it is vital that links between the needs of school facility planning and comprehensive planning are restored. Author Noreen McDonald says, "Financial models and school planning must undergo a fundamental reassessment to encourage a closer liaison between city and school planning in order to ensure that schools provide a return on investment for the whole community."

Schools represent long term fixed infrastructure investments and their location can influence the travel patterns of students and parents in the short term, as well as the spatial development of communities over the longer term. With tens of billions in State funding for schools, increasing involvement from the federal government in school construction ($22 billion in tax credits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009), and new siting guidelines under development by the EPA, it is time to reconnect urban and school planning.

What is clear is the importance of growing flexibility in school planning. This requires that, whether advocating smart growth principles or traditional large campus schools, school facility planning be integrated into the heart of urban planning.  In a changing environment with higher density populations, higher prices for transportation and increases in land price, local and regional planners must work with school facility planners to create a process to ensure that schools meet the differing needs of the communities they serve.

Notes to Editors

  • The 20th century saw a rapid increase in school enrollment. In 1910, 10 percent of those aged 14 to 17 were enrolled in school, but 90 percent of this age group was enrolled by 1970. This massive increase put enormous pressure on the physical infrastructure of schools.
  • School planning was formalized in the post-war years when schools were needed for rapidly growing undeveloped suburban areas, where land was not a limiting factor but it was essential to build schools quickly to accommodate the growth in children requiring education (see p. 9 of the article).
  • Early use-based guidelines on school size and location (recommending schools be an adequate size to accommodate the school building and space for outdoor games and physical education) rapidly became minimum acreage guidelines (see Table 1 in the article). By the late 1950s all states except Wyoming had established minimum size guidelines, with 43 states recommending at least five acres for elementary school and 45 states recommending at least 10 acres for secondary school.
  • Much of the increase in recommended school size was to support the continued expansion of educational programs in the wider community, and the need for sufficient space for future expansion (either of school buildings or sports facilities).
  • Comprehensive, or overall urban, planners, largely ceded school planning to school districts from the '50s and '60s. In the 75-year history of JAPA, only six papers have directly addressed school planning.
  • Many school facility planners still believe high acreages for schools are necessary. This is because of community expectations of ample parking, drop-off areas, and athletic fields as well as to accommodate future enrollment growth. At the same time, the acquisition of larger land parcels can hedge against future construction problems.
  • While elementary school planners still prefer sites located within neighborhoods, prerequisites for potential school location include water and sewage access, as well as adequate road capacity.

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For More Information

Noreen McDonald
Assistant Professor, City & Regional Planning
University of Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3140 USA
Telephone: 919-962-4781

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