Deciding where to build new schools and close existing ones is often a complicated issue with far reaching implications not just for school systems but city and county governments as well.
School siting was among the issues that prompted the Newton County cities of Covington, Oxford, Porterdale, Newborn and Mansfield to form the Leadership Collaborative in 2005 along with Newton County, the Newton County Board of Education, the Newton County Water & Sewerage Authority and the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce. The group has developed a 2050 build-out plan that is guided by four principles: protect clean water, create communities, create interconnecting corridors and target public investment.
“Our goal is to direct 88 percent of our population, ultimately targeted at 400,000 (water can support that much), into compact communities on 38 percent of the land,” explained Kay Lee, director of the Center for Community Preservation and Planning, which coordinates the Collaborative. “All the schools and government infrastructure will go where the people are and we are going to preserve the other 62 percent of the community for larger residential development and for green enterprises such as farming and eco-tourism.”
Covington Planning Director Randy Vinson said all the government entities in the Collaborative have signed a resolution pledging to build schools and other public infrastructure close to where the population lives and works.
“The resolution also states that each elected body and professional staff will meet to discuss the pluses and minuses of infrastructure siting before the land deals are done,” Vinson said. “We haven’t put this to full use yet but we are working on siting a school downtown. We would love to see the kids walk to school, get some buses and cars off the road and have the school become more of a neighborhood school for the town.”
Decatur city officials have long worked with the Decatur Board of Education on public infrastructure and other issues and the city’s only high school is located in the heart of downtown.
“Having schools located in the center of town has several benefits,” said Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd. “There is accessibility: kids can walk or ride their bikes to school, which means less buses and cars on the road. There is also an economic benefit to having schools near the commercial district rather than on the edge of town; it adds a level of activity to the commercial areas around the school, making the whole downtown more viable and livable.”
As the location of schools can be a catalyst for smart growth or an enabler of sprawl, the Georgia Conservancy has taken an interest in school siting.
“Part of our larger mission is to promote efficient land use,” said Katherine Moore, Smart Growth Program manager with the Georgia Conservancy. “Neighborhood stability, walkability to schools and the impact to economic centers should all be factors decision makers consider in school siting and closing decisions.”
Last year, the Conservancy successfully applied for a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Source Reduction Assistance Grant Program to whittle down EPA’s School Siting Guidelines (http://www.epa.gov/schools/siting/
) into a training program for Georgia’s elected officials and facility managers.
“Many factors are considered when choosing the site for a new school, but until now, local officials have lacked a comprehensive, technical resource that takes into account a school site’s impacts to the community, the environment and public health,” Moore said.
A draft training curriculum will be completed this spring and tested in a pilot training course.
“I think decision makers are doing the best that they can to use their budgets efficiently,” Moore said. “They also have to respond to population shifts in part due to changes from the recession; they don’t always have the time to plan many years in advance, which is ideal. We would just like to encourage decision makers to look at a broader set of issues related to school siting, not just the cost of land.”
Communication and coordination between municipal officials and school board members can profoundly improve the school siting process, both Moore and the Collaborative’s Lee assert.
“Don’t let anything stop you from getting together and setting a goal in relation to siting your infrastructure, particularly your schools,” Lee urged city officials. “All the government entities—the cities, counties and school systems—serve the public, work from the same tax dollar and they all have the same client. They all can collaborate, they just have to start. The value of coming together will be seen and supported.”