Written by John Kissane
As seems to be the case elsewhere in the United States, Georgia lacks an exemplary track record of progressive thinking when it comes to siting new schools and making decisions regarding the treatment of older schools. Historic preservation advocates have expressed concerns for historic schools in Georgia for years, but although there have been isolated success stories, the overall picture is not pretty.
Oconee Street School, Athens, Georgia. This c. 1908 building was taken out of service as a school in 1975 and the neighborhood that surrounds it subsequently became transitory, dominated by housing occupied by University of Georgia students. The building currently houses a non-profit agency. (Photo: John Kissane)
When the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Neighborhood Historic Schools on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, Alexander II Elementary in Macon, Georgia was chosen to represent all of the endangered schools in the southeast. Renovated in 2002-2003, the school now serves as an example for the region of how older buildings can remain in use and function effectively.
In 2003, the Preserving Georgia’s Historic Schools report from the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office determined that deferred maintenance was the primary threat to the state’s historic school buildings. Why is maintenance being deferred? Money, or lack thereof, is one answer - but that’s only partially correct. Also at play is the often incorrect assumption that new construction is more cost-effective than rehabilitation.
There’s also the fact that certain areas of our state have experienced phenomenal population growth and - until just recently - economic expansion while other parts of the state are struggling to survive. In both area situations, those working to preserve historic school buildings face uphill battles.
Georgia’s “Helping Johnny Walk to School” project began when GeorgiaBikes! (the statewide bike/ped nonprofit) and the Georgia Safe Routes to School State Network received one of the grants made available through the National Trust in its cooperative agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We established a Steering Committee which started looking at state policies and practices that impacted two things: retaining historic school buildings as schools and siting new schools in locations that allow them to function as community centers rather than isolated outposts.
Our project was fortunate to participate in a survey conducted last summer by David Salvesen of the Center for Sustainable Community Design at UNC-Chapel Hill and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The survey was distributed to school superintendents, school board members, school facility planners and a variety of others, all of whom play some role in the school facility planning process. A total of 204 surveys were completed.
What did the preliminary findings reveal about school closings in Georgia? The number one survey response was that closings happen primarily due to the desire to construct new facilities. The second was that new construction is seen as a money-saving measure over rehabilitation. Ranking third was that reductions in enrollment have pushed school districts to close some of their schools.
We found the following expanded survey response of particular interest:
“While our systems are building new schools, we have turned most of our efforts into rehabilitating and renovating existing facilities with an eye toward greater sustainability. Limited new sites and the price of land have made it more practical to reinvest in existing facilities rather than build new.
However, our state funding program and state guidelines are more conducive to building new schools and are in need of revisions to reflect the need to reuse existing facilities where appropriate."
This type of response suggests that rehabilitation possibilities are being considered and acted upon at the local level, but that state policies are discouraging such action.
David C. Barrow Elementary School, Athens, Georgia. Constructed in 1923, Barrow School is a much-loved neighborhood resource and began the first Safe Routes to School efforts in Athens several years ago. Athens is one Georgia city that has mostly succeeded in maintaining its older school buildings and keeping them in use as schools. (Photo: John Kissane)
As a result of the findings, our recommendations include suggestions that policies such as minimum acreage requirements and minimum school enrollments be eliminated. We also encourage local government participation in school site selection, as well as expanding opportunities for joint use of school facilities. These recommendations constitute the concluding section of a school siting white paper prepared through our project this spring.
To encourage discussion, the Steering Committee encouraged a symposium on the topic of school siting. The Atlanta Regional Commission is now spearheading the planning for a school siting symposium to be held in late September or October of this year.
Planning partners for the symposium include GeorgiaBikes!, the Georgia Conservancy, the Georgia Safe Routes to School Regional Network, Mothers & Others for Clean Air, the Civic League for Metro Atlanta, Dan Drake, a School Planner, and Laura Searcy, a Nurse Practitioner.
This one-day gathering will bring together decision makers, school and local government officials, state agencies, and advocacy groups to learn about factors currently influencing school siting decisions in Georgia. Together, we’ll discuss the ramifications of those decisions and ways to improve school siting practices through local, regional, and state level policies and actions.
John Kissane is a consultant to Georgia Bikes! and resident of Athens, Georgia. He cares deeply about the vitality of Georgia’s neighborhoods and believes well sited schools are a critical component.
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