by Kathleen Aragon
School location decisions impact so much more than education. Where we place schools affects health, transportation, safety, social equity, and community finances for decades, if not centuries to come. School location influences where we build infrastructure and housing, as well as a myriad of other cascading decisions around growth. Because of these factors, school districts and community organizations shy away from the open discussions that should occur when planning for school location.
If your community is considering any change in school facilities, decision makers should be encouraged to begin the journey down the road to collaboration. If your city or town has or will be contemplating school location changes or grade configuration changes (moving from a K-5 school to a K-12 school, adding pre-school, etc.) there are several factors to be discussed and weighed. The following are example questions that can be answered in the collaborative group setting that might aid decision-makers in their quest to make a best-practice, well-informed, cooperative community decision:
- Has your community made decisions to open or close schools, and what are/were the impacts on kids, neighborhoods or the greater community?
- Have schools been closed in the most densely populated impoverished areas of town, and opened in more affluent, less densely populated suburbs? If so, how is that affecting transportation, health, safety, social equity and access to education?
- If new schools are built, can the district afford the cost to staff and annually operate more buildings without resulting in negative impacts to academic programs
- How many homeless students are part of your community, where is temporary housing (homeless shelters, teen-runaway programs, low-cost hotels) located and how do these students get to and from school?
- What are your city and school demographics? Do you live in an aging, growing city with a stagnant student population?
- Where do families with school-aged children tend to live consistently over time?
- Is infrastructure around schools adequate for walking and biking to school, and if not, what are the costs and time frame for building the necessary infrastructure, and will city or school bear the financial responsibility?
- Do school boundaries make it easy for kids to walk and bike to school, maximizing access to school on foot or bike and minimizing bussing costs?
- How is school location related to bussing students? What are bussing costs? How is school bussing funded?
- Do school boundaries maximize the diversity of students?
- Are school playgrounds, playfields, gyms, and/or libraries available to the community for recreational purposes after hours and in summers?
- Does the city/county planning staff engage with the school district to inform it of projects that could impact enrollment or school siting?
- Does the school district have a plan for closed school properties to minimize neighborhood destabilization?
When community partners collaborate, these questions are answered before the decisions are made. Communities benefit most when education, health, transportation, public and private housing development, and social services come to the table, share their plans and data to develop metrics and a common vision guided by answers to these important questions. The process takes time and effort.
Table 1 depicts the degrees of collaboration ranging from non-collaboration where entities compete or simply coexist to the fully collaborative integration of plans, programs, and funds. Where does your community fit in this spectrum?
TABLE I COLLABORATION SPECTRUM
School Planning in Billings, Montana
Planning for both the schools and community is always complex, but it is especially challenging in cities where the school-aged population is flat while the general population is growing. Billings, Montana is one such community. In 1970, the city population was less than 70,000 (city census), and school district enrollment was at its height of nearly 18,000. In 2000, the general population was nearing 100,000, and the school enrollment was only 16,000. Billings student enrollment has bumped and dipped for many decades since 1969 (MT Office of Public Instruction). In 2001, during one of the many historical dips in enrollment, three Billings elementary schools were closed during a financial crisis: Beartooth, Garfield, and Rimrock.
The three school closures were presented as a solution to a shortfall in funding (school funding is enrollment-based in many states including Montana). Billings school administrators grouped the twenty-five elementary schools into four general areas and calculated historical enrollment numbers for the school groupings. Schools were targeted for closure based on these numbers. The school-aged population had both declined and shifted across the city. The greatest shift of school-aged population was toward the Beartooth school area, yet that enrollment number (which was used to decide school closures) was inaccurate by exactly 300 students (300 is the approximate size of an elementary school). The Beartooth school reopened in 2007, costing more (due to bussing) in public tax dollars than had the school remained open. The cost to close the school and bus students to other schools was not calculated into the “cost savings” presented to the public during the 2001 closures.
The other two schools closed in 2001, Garfield and Rimrock, were closed without consideration of city plans (housing, transportation infrastructure, etc.). Garfield school was closed while the city was building a low-income, federally funded housing development next to the school. Rimrock school was closed in 2001, only a year after the city had placed street crossings and bike lanes to improve safety and access to the school. In 2007, Rimrock school was reopened for one year to accommodate all-day kindergarten. The reopening of Rimrock was funded by one-time only state money which was used to refurbish the school; however, the school was shuttered by the school district the following year. The closed school remains an eyesore for the neighborhood.
In 2009, the Billings Public Schools (BPS) Planning and Development Committee was responsible for developing a detailed review of school district/community demographics (http://www.billingsschools.org/district-documents.html). BPS Policy 9001 states that school demographics will be reviewed annually. The policy had been in place since 2004 but had never been implemented. In reviewing historical demographic information, it became apparent that past district decisions were made in isolation and lacked the collection of important data and financial information that could better inform school boundaries and closures. For example, one of the criteria used to determine which schools to close was “no student bussing.” School bussing is a permissive levy (does not require approval from voters) in Montana. School transportation is costly, oftentimes millions of dollars are spent annually on transportation. If a school is located so that its boundary is small (dense population of students) and safe (existing sidewalks and bikeways), neither distance nor safety bussing is needed. The use of “no bussing” as a closure criterion might be debated by the public who pay school transportation costs. Had the community been included in discussions to develop criteria, “no bussing” may have been an important reason to keep a school open (rather than a criterion for school closure).
This situation in Billings has been cited in several publications: “Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School” (http://atfiles.org/files/pdf/whyjohnnywalkschool.pdf), “Helping Johnny Walk to School” (http://www.bestfacilities.org/best-home/docuploads/pub/214_helping-johnny-walk-to-school.pdf), and in the February 2014 publication of The Western Planner article, “Lessons Learned in Montana and New Mexico” (https://www.westernplanner.org/land-useschools/2016/12/14/school-districts-and-local-governments-partnering-for-success).
“Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School” highlights the Billings’ school closure decisions of 2001 and the negative impact of those closures on students walking to school. In “Helping Johnny Walk to School,” Billings was again highlighted for the school board’s adoption of a plan that would make Billings’ schools less walkable by opening a new school in a low student density location and then closing existing schools in high-density locations (the plan was adopted, but never implemented). The Western Planner article highlighted a more positive “collaboration” regarding school location in 2012. As seen in Table I, Collaboration Spectrum, there is a wide-range of “collaboration” from the minimal loose, turf oriented, “co-existence” and working within silos to true “integration” where plans, funding, and programs become fully integrated. The Billings collaboration that occurred in 2012 (communication) was improved over the effort in 2001 (co-existence), but still lacked the more desirable levels of collaboration. In 2012, representatives from other public and private organizations were invited to attend two meetings of the school district’s “Site Investigation Team.” While this was an improvement over previous years when there was no coordinating between the district and other public entities, the team still lacked the details (data collection, shared goals, and outcomes, policy alignment, review of alternatives, scoring criteria, funding plans, etc.) necessary to truly collaborate for a positive collective impact. The school district described the enrollment increase as an “urgent crisis” that would not allow time for a lengthy collaborative process. The team did identify “Key Factors” as outlined in the February 2014 article, but no measurable criteria were attached to those factors. Despite there being no minimum acreage standards in Montana, the school district imposed an arbitrary minimum standard of 15 acres per middle school and only considered sites the district already owned. A more thorough evaluation would have contrasted and compared multiple sites using tools like the Active School Neighborhood Checklist (ASNC) (http://www.saferoutespartnership.org/resources/toolkit/active-school-neighborhood-checklist) or the Smart School Siting Tool (SSST https://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/smart-school-siting-tool) which would have helped participants evaluate sites using metrics and also considered the joint use of public facilities to maximize opportunities for cost-savings through shared use.
While the school process of 2012 was an improvement compared to the closures of 2001, it lacked the fact-gathering, stakeholder input, discussion, debate, costs, and timelines required for a fully integrated planning process. The Billings School District and city must now address parents’ concerns about children safely walking and biking to schools. Parents are demanding answers and requesting solutions for the inadequate infrastructure around the first of two new schools (http://billingsgazette.com/news/local/government-and-politics/task-force-local-officials-work-to-keep-medicine-crow-kids/article_af5d7d8f-799d-5711-87e7-acb5f4b2a864.html). When schools and cities share detailed plans, infrastructural costs and timelines are determined from the outset.
Developing the Best Long-term Solutions
Gathering facts, comparing plans and studying demographic trends to better understand school and community needs helps school and city planners come up with best practice long-term solutions for both schools and the greater community. Whether dealing with bubbles in age cohorts (which result in bumps and dips in school numbers) or managing an increasing or decreasing enrollment trend, communities benefit from collaborative planning and avoid costly, short-term, Band-Aid fixes or forced decisions to close schools.
Politics run rampant around decisions to build and close schools because of the very real impact on community development, construction, and finance sectors. But when schools and cities use tools such as the Active School Neighborhood Checklist or Smart School Siting Tool, stakeholders are brought to the table to discuss and debate these impacts inclusively and transparently to develop a common vision supported by facts and data.
Communication is critical to success, and the process should be led by an independent facilitator who will work to ensure transparency, encourage expression of all viewpoints, identify conflicts and promote discussion and debate of both positive and negative impacts while moving the group toward a fact-based community-driven solution.
As with every good relationship, collaboration requires time, effort and commitment from all participants. Both public and private entities can benefit while having positive impacts on education, health, transportation, safety, and social equity.
The Billings Public Schools (BPS) 2012 facilities plan to construct two new middle schools, Medicine Crow and Ben Steele Middle School was based in part, on a demographic report produced by McGibbon Demographics and Cropper GIS, BPS, MT Demographic Study, November 2012.
The McGibbon/Cropper report projected enrollment to reach 9,472 (K-6) in 2017. In October 2016 K-6 enrollment was 8,783 (MT Office of Public Instruction); approximately 600 students short of the study’s projection. Challenges lie ahead for the school district finances as revenues based on student enrollment projections have not materialized.
Parents of students who attend Medicine Crow school brought concerns about missing infrastructure to the attention of the school district and city at the public meeting cited in this article http://billingsgazette.com/news/local/government-and-politics/task-force-local-officials-work-to-keep-medicine-crow-kids/article_af5d7d8f-799d-5711-87e7-acb5f4b2a864.html, but neither the school nor the city has additional funds to build infrastructure. Community members have been discussing public/private partnerships to improve safe access to school, but there are no immediate solutions.
The second middle school, Ben Steele is scheduled to open in Fall 2017. To meet the opening date, the City of Billings accelerated the re-construction of Grand Avenue at the cost of $3.3 million (which included both developer and city contributions). Grand Avenue is the major arterial on which the school is located. Both the Smart School Siting Tool and Active School Neighborhood Checklist give lower scores to schools located on major arterials due to proximity, number, speed and volume of motorized vehicles (a factor to consider when siting schools). Due to the accelerated construction around the school, the previously scheduled construction sites have been delayed for three years. The school district policy requires the district to provide private school bus transportation to all students within school boundaries where there is lack of infrastructure. School bussing costs are a permissive (non-voted) levy in Montana. The school district will be required to continue offering annual student bussing (per the safety bussing policy) until sidewalks, bikeways, crossings, and streets are completed within the new school boundary.
The Billings community has made great strides in collaboration as witnessed by the passage of a Complete Streets policy in 2011. The policy was supported by a wide range of citizens and community organizations. Over the past several years, bike lanes, street markings and off-street neighborhood to school paths have been constructed across the city to provide direct access to schools from neighborhoods and reduce conflict between cars and cyclists, walkers and wheelchairs. Projects are limited by funding, and more infrastructure is needed; collaborative planning for schools and community can clarify needed projects, assign costs, and identify alternatives before construction begins. Communities who collaborate routinely are more aware of upcoming projects on which they can cooperate. When agencies integrate planning and funding, communities reap the benefit for decades to come.
Kathleen Aragon, P.T is a community health advocate. She currently co-chairs Billings Action for Healthy Kids and serves on two non-profit boards: Bike Walk MT - a Voice for Walking and Biking in Montana and Billings TrailNet – promoting a complete community –wide trail system. Kathy has been a life-long advocate of all that is healthy, fun and active, and has worked many years promoting walking and biking to school. She has developed and managed multiple Safe Routes to School programs. Kathy, and her husband Chuck have 3 children who attended Billings Public Schools and Kathy served on the Billings Public School Board from 2007-2014. For more information and tools on school siting, visit www.schoolsiting.com.
Published in the July 2017 Western Planner