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Walking to school

The case for renovating and maintaining school buildings in established neighborhoods

Central Pennsylvania Magazine
November 2004

By Thomas Hylton

Gov. Rendell wants kids to be able to walk to school.

Earlier this year, the governor unveiled a four-year, $200 million initiative called Home Town Streets and Safe Routes to School. Administered by the Department of Transportation, the program provides grants to local municipalities to improve the pedestrian environment, including sidewalks, bike paths, and walking trails leading to neighborhood schools.

“One of the attractions of living in an established community is the proximity of schools and homes,” says PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler. “We’re happy to have a program that will help make it safer for kids to walk to school.”

Let’s hope somebody tells the Department of Education about the plan. Because for 50 years, with the blessings of the Department of Education, school districts have been steadily abandoning walkable neighborhood schools in favor of corporate-style campuses outside established population centers. These “sprawl” schools not only make it impossible to walk, they generate a demand for new housing and public water and sewer lines in rural areas.

"Sprawl schools" raise property values (and taxes), making it difficult for surrounding landowners to keep their land as open space. Meanwhile, abandoned schools help drain the life out of older, established communities, leading to population loss and lowered property values.

Last year, for example, the Donegal School District closed two neighborhood elementary schools in Mount Joy Borough and replaced them with a new school on 40 acres in outlying East Donegal Township, where no children can walk.

“We tried to persuade the district to keep the elementary schools in the borough,” says Mount Joy Borough Manager Terry Kauffman. “Parents like the notion their children can walk to school where there are sidewalks and police protection. But the district claimed Department of Education guidelines made the borough sites poor places for schools.”

In fact, the Department has no acreage requirements for schools. But architects promoting the need for spacious new school grounds point to “optimum” guidelines in the school code. The guidelines suggest 10 acres for an elementary school, 20 acres for a middle school, and 30 acres for a high school, plus one acre for every 100 students enrolled. Such standards make it impossible to build or keep schools in traditional towns, where an entire block might be four acres or less.

But even these “optimum” guidelines seem stingy, judging by recent land acquisitions by school districts in the region. In 1998, the Gettysburg Area School District opened a new high school on 100 acres in Straban Township, replacing a high school in Gettysburg Borough on 12 acres.

The Central York School district is building a new $60 million high school on 138 acres in Springettsbury Township, replacing its high school in a traditional neighborhood of North York Borough.

The Ephrata Area School District has acquired an 80-acre farm in Ephrata Township for a new elementary school to replace its existing Lincoln Elementary School, located on five acres within borough limits. The new school will be built when and if the district wins a court battle with the Lancaster County commissioners to place an access road to the school through a preserved farm.

School buildings themselves don’t require much space. The Camp Hill School District has both a high school and a middle school on a 3.4-acre campus. Rather, it is the parking lots, athletic fields, and the desire to create a “campus” setting that consumes huge quantities of land. In towns, schools can share playing fields with the municipality, making much more efficient use of space. Camp Hill, for example, has its athletic fields a few blocks away from the high school.

For decades, the Department of Education encouraged school districts to replace, rather than renovate, older buildings. State subsidies were denied for any two-story building with interior wood framing or whose renovation costs would exceed 60 percent of the cost of a new school. Those requirements were rescinded in 1998, but only after scores of older schools had already been closed.

In 1991, for example, the Hanover School District abandoned a magnificent 1933 middle school because the estimated cost of renovations exceeded 60 percent of the cost of new construction. The vacated school was rescued by businessmen who renovated the school building for offices. The auditorium is now a community performing arts center. (Recently, an identical middle school building in Pottstown, also built in 1933, was renovated and expanded by the Pottstown School District at far less cost than a new school.)

A completely renovated school building will have the same life span as a new one, says Yale Stenzler, recently retired director of Maryland’s school construction program. “Unfortunately, many laymen believe older buildings ‘wear out,’” Stenzler says. “But a well constructed building can last for centuries with good maintenance and major renovations every 20 to 30 years.” Renovating an existing school building is usually at least 20 percent less than the cost of a new structure, he says, especially considering the savings from not having to acquire and prepare a new site.

Renovating existing schools is also more environmentally sound, according to Paul Zeigler, director of building technology for the Department of Environmental Protection. “The number one principle of green building design is to renovate and recycle existing buildings,” he says. Pre-war buildings with big windows and high ceilings are perfect candidates for natural day lighting and maximum energy efficiency, he adds.

The Harrisburg School District has an on-going program of major renovations for all its schools, including six schools built prior to 1915. Two years ago, a vacant 1907 office building in Lebanon, once used by Bethlehem Steel, was renovated into a 200-student classroom building for the Lebanon-Lancaster Intermediate Unit. But these projects are the exception to the rule.

“A lot of buildings have been abandoned that could have continued to serve as schools,” says Charles Fairchild, retired director of facilities for the Reading School District, who managed the renovation of the Lebanon-Lancaster IU building. “A lot of options for renovations are ignored or never even see the light of day.” Architects have a strong financial incentive to promote new schools over renovations, Fairchild says, and school administrators overwhelmingly prefer the new over the old. School construction has become a huge business, consuming $1 billion annually in state and local funding.

When older schools are closed, they are usually replaced with large consolidated schools outside of town. The Middletown Area School District, for example, recently replaced two elementary schools in Middletown Borough with the new Reid Elementary School in Lower Swatara Township. A new middle school is also planned in Lower Swatara to replace the current one located in the heart of Middletown.

Big, centralized schools bring economies of scale, school officials say, because one library and one multi-purpose room can serve a greater number of students, and administrators can make more efficient use of staff. Perhaps no school district has carried out this philosophy more rigorously than the Shamokin Area School District, which closed all of its eight elementary schools and replaced them with one Wal-Mart-sized behemoth housing 1,250 children. Of course, everyone is bused.

But busing carries a big price tag of its own. Statewide, school busing costs $750 million per year. Children are forced to spend a hour or more daily on dreary bus rides to and from school. And riding rather than walking takes an enormous toll on student health. “Obesity is increasing at an alarming rate, especially among the young,” says Joanne Grossi, deputy secretary of the Department of Health. “A third of our school-aged population is overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.”

Obesity increases the chance of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses, Grossi says, and already costs Pennsylvania $4.1 billion annually in disease- related costs. “If we don’t do something about this,” she says, “the current generation may be the first one not to live longer than their parents.” In 1970, about half of all American children walked to school. Now, in Pennsylvania, fewer than 23 percent do.

Although the location of schools has an enormous impact on the municipalities they serve, there is no state requirement for school districts to plan cooperatively with them. School districts must submit a mountain of paper work to the state Department of Education to receive reimbursement for construction projects (the average state subsidy is about 20 percent), but the state provides no guidance as to whether schools should be renovated or replaced, how large they should be, or where they should be located. “All those decisions are up to the local school boards,” says Carla Dixon, head of school construction for the Department of Education.

A decade ago, Maryland adopted a comprehensive planning process called “smart growth” to revitalize its towns and preserve its countryside. The program requires counties to define specific areas where development will be encouraged, and avoids state funding for projects proposed outside those areas.




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