Taking the “School Siting Matters” Message on the Road

Posted on: May 11th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Royce Yeater, AIA

Some communities are using "walking school buses" to encourage more students to walk and bike to school.

Some communities are using "walking school buses" to encourage more students to walk and bike to school. (Photo: Matt Dalbey)

On April 12, I spoke with three other panelists before a small group of school board officials about why school location matters at their national conference in Chicago.  During the session, we explained our concerns about the effects of remote school siting on the livability of our communities and the health of our children to this interested audience.

The National School Boards Association felt that school siting was an important topic to cover but only a dozen or so showed up to hear how school location affects the health of children and the health of the local community.

As you know, preservationists have been working to keep schools at the centers of the communities they serve for many years.  The National Trust, in collaboration with an advisory group, recently offered suggestions for policy reform in Helping Johnny Walk to School.

So I framed the topic by talking about the convergence of our interest in retaining older and historic schools, which are often in central, walkable locations, with those wanting to encourage more active transportation in order to help fight the obesity epidemic and reduce vehicle miles traveled.

Then, Matt Dalbey from the Smart Growth program of the US Environmental Protection Agency reported that their agency is close to issuing draft voluntary school location guidelines for public comment.  These guidelines are designed to help encourage schools that are healthy for the student and sited in such a way as to help reduce green house gas emissions.  Matt also discussed the challenge of balancing the desire to find a site free of contaminants and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by locating schools on remote sites.

After Matt spoke, Heather Schady, the program manager for the Illinois Safe Routes to School Partnership (SRTS) and Active Transportation Alliance, outlined how they are working to make walking to school safer and more feasible.  She showed the decline in the number of children walking to school in 2001 (16%) compared to the number who walked in 1969 (46%). She blamed this decline on a reduction in the number of schools and the increased size of school sites which basically helped take schools out of neighborhoods.  Schady encouraged school boards to reverse this trend through more coordinated planning with municipal officials.

To help school boards understand the impact of their siting decisions on student health, Sara Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney with the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity in Oakland, CA, indicated the absence of physical exercise as a part of daily routines is a major contributor to the obesity trend.  She also stressed the fact that walking to school provides daily exercise without taking time from the school day, and actually enhances educational performance.

Zimmerman also noted that one school bus costs about the same as a teacher but adds nothing to the learning process.  She suggested redirecting busing dollars into the classroom by locating schools within neighborhoods.

In the Q&A that followed, school board members shared their situations and raised the following questions.

Q: What sources of funding are available to help districts with facility planning?

A: There is little funding available to help districts plan for their real estate portfolio which is a major barrier. However, Congressman Hind from Wisconsin is introducing a bill that would make planning dollars for school facilities available.

Q: How can we evaluate the historic importance of a school?

A: You can first talk with your local municipal planning agency. They often have a staff member who works with either the preservation commission or historical society.  Each state also has a state historic preservation office which can help you evaluate the building's historical significance.

Q: How do we measure the importance of preserving schools which are anchoring neighborhoods but slated for closure?

A: We are seeing more districts like Kansas City struggle with declining enrollment and cash-strapped budgets.  However, we urge school districts to take the long-term view and understand that neighborhoods go through population cycles. We also encourage a systematic evaluation process and consideration of innovative options such as sharing administrative and janitorial staff.

Q: What are the environmental risks of reusing grey or brownfield sites?

A: We all want healthy school facilities for our children. That's our number one goal. Sites can be remediated so that they can be safely used for educational purposes.

Click here to view the presentations.

This educational session gave evidence that some school board members are beginning to see their school siting decisions as critical to the health of their students and their community. But while we've made some progress, we still have a long way to go before this idea becomes mainstream.

Royce Yeater, AIA, is the director of the Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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