Public Education and Sustainable Community Planning in California

Posted on: September 16th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Elaine Stiles  

California has over 10,000 schools, with districts ranging in size from seven to nearly 700,000 students. Pictured here is a historic high school building in El Segundo.

Ten thousand schools. Districts ranging in size from seven to nearly 700,000 students. More than $100 billion (yes, billion) in state and local school bond issues in the past decade. Approximately 1,000 independent school districts that operate outside of local and regional planning and approval processes.  

These are just a few features of the vast, complex landscape that is school facilities planning in California.  

Two weeks ago in Sacramento, approximately 50 educators, planners, environmental professionals, policy analysts – and me representing the preservation field – met to discuss how California can amend its K-12 school facilities planning policies to be more supportive of sustainable community development. The scale of California’s public school system and the state’s recently enacted environmental performance measures make this an essential conversation. Californians produce 1.4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from motor vehicle trips. To shrink this number, current state law mandates both a reduction of California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (AB 32), and that regional and local planning bodies aid reduction by eliminating vehicle miles traveled by curbing sprawl (SB 375). As in most states, California’s public school districts make decisions about the placement of core community assets that influence growth, transportation, and infrastructure investment patterns, all of which in turn impact a community’s environmental footprint.  

Participants in the round table, Smart Schools for Sustainable Communities: Aligning Sustainable Communities Planning and Public Education in California, recommended changing school siting policies, integrating school facility and local planning efforts, co-locating facilities with other community uses, creating incentives for choosing infill development sites, and increasing state capital investment in existing schools to support greater community sustainability.  

For me, one of the most striking discussions was on increasing state investment in existing school facilities. This topic would naturally prick up the ears of someone like me who cares about maintaining historic and community-centered schools, but incentivizing reuse of existing buildings is also a straightforward and easily-implemented solution to limiting sprawl, reducing costs, and keeping schools near their students.  

As the discussion unfolded, it became clear that the need for capital investment in existing schools in California is high, but that the level of the state’s funding assistance for rehabilitation and retrofitting needs to be reevaluated. The California Department of Education has a $3.3 billion, bond-funded modernization program that assists districts with improvements to existing school facilities. Established in 1968, the program guidelines basically reflect that time period, when building new schools in California’s booming suburbs defined the state’s school facilities program. Parameters such as a 25-year age threshold; a lower state match than for new construction; and eligible activities limited to in-kind replacement, systems upgrades, and new furniture/equipment mean that local districts are responsible for the full cost of substantive rehabilitation, retrofitting, or addition to existing school facilities.  

At present, over $1 billion remains in the modernization program coffers from the last bond issue in 2006. With 10,000 existing schools in operation across the state and a large bubble of mid-to-late 20th century schools nearing the age when they require substantive upgrades, California has a chance to support and incentivize the stewardship of existing infrastructure by retooling its modernization program.  

The public research gathering in Sacramento was the first step in the process of aligning sustainable community growth and public education in California, and the ideas generated and examined there show promise for successfully melding the best of these important values.  

Elaine Stiles is a program officer in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Western Office. Click here to learn more about the National Trust's efforts to encourage and support community-centered schools.

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