Written by Renee Kuhlman
Q: Have you – or someone you love – ever tried to save a school? Yes/No
Q: Does your community have an older or historic school that’s central to its well-being? Yes/No
Q: Are you finding it difficult to revitalize a neighborhood without a quality school? Yes/No
Q: Are you looking for another use for one of your town’s “white elephant” buildings? Yes/No
If you answered yes to any of these questions above, please consider adding your two cents to the Environmental Protect Agency's (EPA) draft voluntary siting guidelines. The following are three types of situations that might inspire you.
In Fleming County, Kentucky, the school district is closing an 83 year old school in downtown Ewing (pop. 278) to build a new K-6 elementary school in the geographic center of the county, but not in the center of a community. If the guidelines had been in place, the community and school district could have worked together to avoid: the forfeiture of $75,000 in federal “safe routes to school” money to improve downtown sidewalks; fewer students walking and biking to school; more roads and sewers built in an undeveloped part of the county; a price tag of an estimated $10 million in taxpayer dollars for land acquisition and construction costs; and citizens struggling to keep the town of Ewing “afloat” without one of its largest “anchors.”
Moreover, the guidelines would recommend a change in the state’s policy that says if the cost of renovation exceeds 80% of the cost of constructing a new school then it will financially support the “new construction” option. Such a policy places older schools at a risk of being abandoned in favor of a new facility with a shorter lifespan. If an older building is retrofitted with new technologies it can probably last another half-century … and beyond.
Decisions like the one in Knox County, Tennessee, to adaptively use the L&N Train Station for a charter school in downtown Knoxville will become more common if communities use the siting guidelines. Not only does this type of renovation spark more rehabilitation in the surrounding area, but such reuse also offers environmental benefits too – it prevents the construction of a new school, roads, and sewer on undeveloped land and can lead to less cars on the road (e.g., fewer “vehicle miles traveled”).
Districts are struggling to find funding to keep schools open. After a process identifying its “underutilized schools,” the Poudre School District’s recent 4-3 decision to keep Beattie Elementary School open means that they now have to figure out how to make this happen financially. The EPA’s guidelines suggest “joint or shared use” as a way communities can more efficiently use publicly owned space. By calculating the expenses needed to make sharing space feasible, the district may be able to recoup its costs and continue using this much-appreciated school.
The EPA is currently taking comments on their proposed guidelines about the complex process of where to locate schools in a healthy and safe manner. These guidelines will directly impact your efforts to keep older communities viable in the next decade.
So, here are our comments. We hope you use them as a template to provide comments of your own. Even if you only have time to write just a few paragraphs, share how these guidelines would have impacted your own community’s recent experience with siting schools.
Bottom line – if you care about older schools, historic buildings, and the livability of your community, send your comments to the EPA by February 18, 2011 and copy me at email@example.com so, just like the greeting card companies, I’ll know that you “cared enough to write.”
Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities Through Smart Policy project at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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