Putting Schools in the Right Spots

EPA Smart School Siting Tool Helps Planners

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Regina Langton is senior policy analyst for the EPA Office of Sustainable Communities.

Nick Salmon is president of the Collaborative Learning Network.

Rebecca Stuecker is architect and associate at IBI Group - ‎Dull Olson Weekes Architects in Portland, Ore.

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Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2016 12:36 pm

Going to school is a big part of every day for students and their families. Schools influence where families choose to live and how communities grow.

Deciding where the school should be is a big decision that affects community safety and health.

Asking the right questions and coordinating with the right stakeholders help with that decision. To aid in that process, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its Smart School Siting Tool earlier this year.

“A community is made up of the natural and built environments, and its people,” said Regina Langton, senior policy analyst for the EPA Office of Sustainable Communities. “The Smart School Siting Tool helps users consider all the needs of a community, and provides a holistic approach to siting that supports the community’s vision and goals for its future.

“Schools are an important factor in where some people decide to live, and how communities develop. Schools located close to where people live can lead to better neighborhoods and more livable communities. By applying the principles of smart growth to educational facility planning, the school siting process offers an opportunity to improve the quality of schools and communities,” Langton said.

Schools are central to communities. It’s where families drop off and pick up children, take them to and from practices, go to games and concerts.

“EPA’s Smart School Siting Tool fundamentally reflects the idea that schools are part of the neighborhood and broader community fabric. Community-centered schools that offer high-quality education and align with broader community goals benefit the environment, human health and well-being in many ways. In the U.S., the concept of community-centered schools can be traced back to the Colonial period and the one-room schoolhouse. School siting professionals note that the resurgence of interest in community-centered schools is a response to the negative environmental, social, and economic effects from building schools on large, undeveloped parcels at the edges of communities, away from the neighborhoods and people they serve,” Langton said.

First and foremost, schools must be safe destinations for walkers, bus riders, bicyclists, or for high schools, drivers. Putting a school within walking or biking distance of a neighborhood uses existing infrastructure and encourages physical activity.

The Smart School Siting Tool has two parts:

First, the Assessment and Planning Workbook helps a community understand how well its school siting process is coordinated with land use and other community planning processes and develop an action plan to improve coordination. The Excel-based Workbook is intended to be used well before a community begins the final process to site a specific school.

Then, the Site Comparison Workbook helps a community directly compare the attributes of two or more candidate sites for a proposed school—which can include a new school, an existing school that is being renovated and/or expanded, or a school that is being relocated.

“The Excel-based Workbook is intended to be used when a community is ready to evaluate a short list of candidate sites,” Langton said. “School agencies, planning departments, and other local government staff are encouraged to collaborate to answer the workbook questions, to cultivate long-term cooperation. The workbook uses 25 questions to compare sites.”

It also helps determine costs, takes about an hour to fill out for each site and has a one-page summary that compares the strengths and weaknesses of the sites.

“Every community has different circumstances, priorities, and challenges that will affect school siting. The goal of the Smart School Siting Tool is to support more collaborative planning -- between local government, school agencies, and community members -- on topics including land availability, infrastructure, transportation, and funding,” Langton said.

The tool was beta tested in 20 western communities with teams of students, teachers, administrators, parents and community volunteers to help them work together and make informed school siting decisions.

“Municipal government offices may not easily coordinate with one another, nor with the local school agency, which can result in disconnected decisions about school siting and other community priorities. Without integrated planning, opportunities for coordinated investments can never be realized,” Langton said. “The Smart School Siting Tool provides a district or community with a mechanism to learn about the needs, views and goals of other decision-makers, making it possible to create community-wide solutions to typical planning obstacles.

“Taken together, school siting and other community decisions influence housing and transportation choices, neighborhood vitality, economic development, costs of community services, environmental quality, and overall community health and well-being,” she said.

Coordination saves tax money and can improve health and environment if there is more walking and less driving, she said. It can also improve accessibility for people who don’t have a car.

School buildings could be community centers, combine public and school libraries and become a hub for all residents of the community.

“I helped to beta test the Smart School Site Planning Tool while it was being developed by Bill Michaud of CSRA for the community of Billings, Mont.,” said Nick Salmon, president of the Collaborative Learning Network. “The tool includes an easy-to-complete spreadsheet with 25 categories of questions including the proximity of students to schools, the characteristics of the neighborhood, potential barrier to walking and cycling to school.

“After utilizing the tool with a number of communities and more than 25 school sites, I began to use the tool with teams of students, teachers, administrators, parents and community volunteers to help make informed decisions about the best utilization of six sites in a single community. It takes about an hour to fill in the spreadsheet for each site and it is helpful to be able to collaborate with the local city or county planning department in order to answer questions about zoning, location of students, etc.

“Typically each of these entities (cities and other governing bodies) make decisions in their own silos. I have found the need for collaboration to be a helpful way to break through those silos and to seek community-wide solutions to typical obstacles. For example, if a city ordinance requires on-site parking for a school, can a portion of that requirement be addressed with adjacent on-street parking? A typical two-acre-site with four adjacent city streets can provide adequate pick-up/drop-off areas, bus/delivery/waste removal areas and staff parking for a school with up to 500 students and staff. Such a solution is found in our older neighborhoods across the country, saves taxpayers $1,000,000 in new utilities and site improvements, and maintains the connection between schools and communities,” Salmon said.

“I have found numerous opportunities to bring schools and city governments together to help answer the questions in the Smart School Site Planning Tool, establish community priorities, and then develop solutions that reflect those priorities. In addition to parking and utilities, building a more robust network of trails reduces the need for parents and school systems to transport students to school. The entire community benefits from the trail system throughout the year,” Salmon said.

“I have found the tool to be most helpful in communities that are faced with expansion or consolidation, and have used the tools in communities with as few as 100 students and as many as 8,000. I have not yet applied the tool to small communities with fewer than 25 students, but the tool, along with the community priority setting exercises should be helpful to communities large and small, urban, suburban and rural,” Salmon said.

Rebecca Stuecker, architect and associate at IBI Group - ‎Dull Olson Weekes Architects in Portland, Ore., tested the tool for a suburban school district near Portland that was in the process of doing a facility assessment and 20-year planning report. She found the tool “user- friendly and visually appealing.

“The assessment tool is a series of questions geared toward making sure the district has a thorough and collaborative planning process and develops an Action Plan for future development. There are questions around demographics & population projections, site selection criteria, local jurisdictional codes and plans, etc. The Site Comparison tool uses a series of criteria by which to score a proposed site. As you run through the questions, you tally up a number of points and can use the tool on multiple sites in order to compare their relative value.”

With school districts, whose borders do not follow city or county lines, more decision makers are involved. Planning together ensures that districts meet the needs of their population.

“Another challenge is projecting growth. We are fortunate to live in a city known for planning, but there are districts in Oregon that are shrinking and some are growing at unprecedented rates. Developers move fast and housing communities are built that bring new kids into a district’s system. Building a school in these areas requires a good deal of coordination and timing can be tricky to ensure the city’s basic infrastructure (water, sewer, roads, etc.) are in place and enough students are going to be in attendance to fill a school. Closing schools in districts with shrinking populations can be even more difficult,” she said.

“All of the districts I have worked with work hard to ensure every student attends a school that is part of their neighborhood community,” Stuecker said. “It is not desirable for students to be bused great distances or housed in portable classrooms when schools become overcrowded. Schools have an effect on housing, traffic patterns, and population density in a community. These are key issues to city planners.”

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