Lessons Learned in Montana and New Mexico
by John Valdez, AICP, Candi Millar, AICP, and Sharon Thomas
Despite school facilities being critical infrastructure with significant impact on communities, planners don’t always become involved in school planning. Conversely, with their first charge education, school districts do not always participate in local planning processes since they may not fully understand the relevance of their decisions on land use, economic development, or transportation. This article highlights successful partnerships between school districts and local government in Las Cruces, NM and Billings, MT.
Many planners can agree that schools are important, not only for the role they play in educating children but also how they can influence the built environment. Siting a school on the edge of a community may attract new residential development. Closing a school in an existing neighborhood may contribute to neighborhood destabilization. On the other hand, building too much square footage in a rural community dependent on one booming industry might leave the school district with excess capacity that it must maintain in times of bust.
While school district-local government partnerships do not always occur, this article highlights two good examples of collaboration in the West, specifically, Las Cruces, NM and Billings, MT.
According to their respective mission statements, the Billings Public Schools “educate individuals” and the City of Billings helps “people flourish and businesses thrive.” The two statements contain no clear intersecting principles; which may explain why, for so many years, neither one knew what the other was doing. Each entity believed its actions and consequences to be distinct and separate from the other. The result was decades of seemingly reactionary decision-making brought about by the isolated actions of the other entity.
The city’s sprawling growth in the early 2000s resulted from easing a long time policy of not extending water and sewer service to the west. Developers found a willing partner in the city that derives most of its revenue from property taxes and was seeking opportunities to expand its tax base. The migration westward was also market driven as the economic pall of the 1980s and 1990s slowly lifted and homebuyers were hungry for bigger homes on larger lots in shiny new subdivisions. In less than five years, the city annexed more than ten square miles, ten times more than it did in the previous decade.
The emerging city growth pattern was not lost on the schools. The old model was to get out ahead of growth and purchase greenfield property when it was less expensive. The school district purchased land outside the city limits in anticipation of westward expansion. In turn, new development congregated near the recently purchased school land in anticipation of new schools.
Encouraging this westward expansion, and possibly accelerating population migration from core neighborhoods, was the closure of four elementary schools. Two of these facilities were multi-story historic schools located in dense, but lower income neighborhoods. The other two were newer but smaller and considered undersized. At the same time, land on the city’s edges was rapidly being annexed for residential development contributing to population reduction in the core neighborhoods - particularly in and around the downtown. Two census tracts in the downtown core that existed in 1990 were combined in the 2000 U.S. Census because of insufficient population.
A recent survey of 17 studies on the cost of different growth patterns demonstrated that suburban-type growth is more costly than compact growth (Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development, Smart Growth America, 2013). The cost of services and infrastructure is greater than the revenue generated by dispersed, low density development. Urban sprawl increases the cost of services requiring tax increases or service level reductions.
In Billings, both occurred. The city passed a Public Safety Mill Levy, an assessed property rate tax, in 2004 to maintain current service levels in existing neighborhoods and provide service to new neighborhoods. The other city services, such as planning, code enforcement, parks and recreation, and the library, were unable to increase their mill levies and had to provide the same amount of service to more people and cover more area.
Recognizing the fiscal and service impacts to taxpayers, the city took action to contain the sprawl. While not eliminated, growth was confined to the established utility corridor. In 2004, the City Council adopted an annexation policy, defining areas where annexation petitions could be supported because infrastructure was either available or planned to be extended based on the adopted Capital Improvements Plan. This policy has successfully constrained city limits to serviceable areas. The city also adopted an infill policy that encourages development in the core neighborhoods where services already exist.
Meanwhile, the school district was experiencing growth in its K-6 classes and faced accreditation issues because of overcrowded classrooms. To reduce class size, the School Board approved a facilities master plan that recommended remodeling and expanding two elementary schools, changing the class configuration to K-5 and 6-8, and constructing two middle schools. Kathleen Aragon, a School Board Trustee and advocate for children’s health, led an initiative to team with the city to ensure the School Board’s actions were consistent with the city’s policies. Several short and long term collaborative measures were taken as a result of Aragon’s leadership, including: quarterly meetings of the elected boards; consistent attendance by school administration at Planning Board meetings; coordination of Safe Routes to School plans and projects; and the submittal and approval of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Smart Growth Implementation Assistance (SGIA) request.
Awarded the SGIA assistance in April 2012, the city sought tools to help the city and school district plan in a collaborative manner and assess the impacts of school siting decisions on various factors including city policies and services, transportation costs, and children’s health.
During a workshop given by the Georgia Conservancy on selecting school sites in consideration of the EPA’s School Siting Guidelines, the Site Investigation Team developed 20 general criteria for ranking potential school sites. Two public meetings and an online survey were conducted and the criteria were further refined to seven key factors:
- Existing and predicted student population base
- Existing city services/infrastructure
- Consistency with city plans and policies
- Walkability, bikeability, public transit access
- Well-connected street network
- Similar in size to existing middle schools
- Joint and multi-use opportunities
School Superintendent Terry Bouck also convened a Site Investigation Team with representatives from City Public Works, Planning, and Parks and Recreation Departments, RiverStone Health (public health), local engineers and architects, affordable housing advocates, realtors and non-profit service providers. The Site Investigation Team ranked six potential sites that met the basic criteria of being at least 15 acres and potentially available. The top ranking sites were presented to the School Board on July 15, and the trustees voted to place a multi-million dollar construction bond on the ballot in November 2013.
Billings has evolved from a community of organizational silos where decisions were made in isolation, to a community of partners planning for its future in a collaborative manner.
Las Cruces, New Mexico
The location of new schools has been an issue in the Las Cruces area for some time, especially during the past decade when the city grew by 30 percent. When new development happens, the existing schools become overcrowded, and land for schools in the area of the new development becomes very expensive. Eventually, the new schools will get built, but in order to find land at a reasonable price, the new schools will most likely be located far from the students they will serve and far from existing infrastructure. Impact fees for schools are not allowed in New Mexico, so purchasing land for schools can be a major hurdle for school districts. In addition, because school funding only covers the school site, the city or the county will likely be paying for the extension of infrastructure.
The city’s latest high school is a good illustration. The utility infrastructure was actually fairly close by; however, there was only one very narrow road to the school. The city paid both for extending the utilities and for a second road, but the school is surrounded by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Under BLM policies, residential development cannot take place on BLM land, so this high school currently sits completely isolated, surrounded by empty desert in all directions. Consequently, this type of location destroys efforts to encourage students to be healthy and to walk or bike to school.
In an effort to avoid such costly problems and unacceptable outcomes in the future, the city, county, and public schools agreed to set up a school siting work group that includes policymakers and staff from the city, county, and Las Cruces Public Schools, as well as representatives from Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) and the Healthy Kids program. During January 2013, the group decided “the purpose of the School Siting Committee is to formalize ongoing collaboration among governmental entities to enhance planning for land around both current and future school sites.”
The New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority’s (NMPSFA) white paper on school siting provides some guidance. The paper suggests involving school district representatives in the development of city and county comprehensive plans and local government planners in the development of the school facility master plan.
During the discussion of where to locate the next elementary school, the necessity of sharing information became apparent. The school district has enrollment predictions, knows what lot size will most likely attract families with children, and is committed to a socioeconomic mix for all of their schools. The city and county know the areas where developers have submitted applications and can make color coded maps that illustrate “existing and potential residential lots.” Combining this information allows for more informed decisions to be made about the location of the next elementary school. This process is being documented to make better recommendations for new policies.
The work has been divided into two categories: how to plan ahead to make sure there are school sites included in the planning for areas that are not yet developed; and what to do about areas that are already developing and need a school but no site has been set aside. At the heart of the matter is how to get school sites that are not expensive. The least expensive sites are on BLM land. While this option exists in the area under consideration for the next school, that school, like the high school, would be isolated from the neighborhoods and would not be following the commitment to the SRTS and Healthy Kids programs to fight the area’s high rates of obesity and diabetes.
A key point in planning is the ability of the city and county to negotiate with developers for a school site. When a developer requests annexation into the city or wants a waiver for some county requirement, that’s the time to negotiate for school land. Higher density in some areas can be offered in return for land for the school. Land in another location may be traded for a school site, because having a neighborhood school makes the development more attractive.
What to do about the need for a school in an area that has already started development is more difficult. This is where maps come in again. Maps of existing and potential lots illustrate areas where master plans have been approved, allowing planners the option to initiate conversations with owners of areas without master plans. Another option to consider is adding information about the development stage into the maps. The point is that there may be multiple times when planners could open the conversation about school sites, but they first must know areas where a school is needed.
The NMPSFA has pointed out that it is important for school district representatives and local government planners to be involved in each other’s planning. In the Las Cruces area, both the city and the county are working on new comprehensive plans and school officials will definitely be involved. Now that the school district and the local government are beginning to work together, it is important to develop mutual understandings to share the documents that each group uses for planning; to invite participation from other groups, such as SRTS and Healthy Kids; and to include both staff and policymakers. Staff members have the documents and know the planning process for their entity, but if they don’t know where the next school needs to go, they won’t know when to negotiate for that school site. Elected officials, who are in charge of making policy, might understand the need for schools, but they are likely to make much better decisions as a result of working through the planning process.
Recently, members of the Las Cruces school siting work group met with staff from both the BLM and the State Land Office (SLO) to discuss exchanging some of the BLM land around the school for SLO land. Unlike BLM land, development can take place on SLO land and both the city and the county have recently signed agreements with the SLO to engage in some cooperative planning efforts.
Planning coordination does not always come easily between school districts and their local governments, sometimes resulting in conflicting goals, policies, projects, and/or duplication of services. This lack of coordination manifests itself in several ways especially with school siting. Local governments may fail to provide guidance to a district on preferred growth or annexation areas, leading to a new school sited in an area not served by infrastructure that requires extending roads and utilities to the site. Or, the new school might be located in an area where walking and biking is limited, robbing the students of the health benefits of physical activity. Finally, without creating partnerships, other opportunities for sharing/joint-use facilities, GIS data sharing, or utilizing programs like Safe Routes to School may be compromised.
Tips for successful school district & city collaboration
As Planning Director for Billings, MT, Candi Millar, AICP, has experienced the process from the early planning stages through the site selection process. She encouraged the Billings Public School’s input in subdivision and development permit review, the City’s Annexation and Infill Policies, Safe Routes to School planning, and numerous bicycle and pedestrian facility projects. The collaboration continues with an EPA Smart Growth Implementation Assistance project for school siting and the current effort to site and construct two middle schools. Based on her experience, Millar offers the following tips for successful collaboration between a city and a school district.
- Structure opportunities to inform, teach, and learn
- Interface at all levels: elected officials, administration, staff and public
- Demonstrate to the public and media that the city/school collaboration equates to tax savings
- Don’t waste each other’s time
- Avoid interfering with decision-making
Center for Cities and Schools Institute of Urban and Regional Development
University of California | 316 Wurster Hall #1870 | Berkeley, CA 94720-1870
John Valdez, AICP, is a planner with the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, specializing in facilities planning, demographics, and growth analysis projects. Candi Millar, AICP, is the Planning Director for the City of Billing’s Planning and Community Services Department and is the vice president of the Western Planning Resources Board. Sharon Thomas, formerly a professor at Michigan State University, retired to Las Cruces in 2003 and was on the Las Cruces City Council from 2007 to 2013.
Published in the February/March 2014 Issue