A top-notch education is crucial for our children's future. But too many
communities are distracted from the goal of providing a quality education by the need to
build new schools to keep up with sprawling growth. It's hard to pay teachers what they
deserve and provide students with up-to-date materials when a district must focus on
constantly building new buildings.
To be clear, providing high-quality schools for our students is absolutely
critical. The problem is that sprawl forces us to build costly new schools on the
outskirts as we close down perfectly good schools in existing communities. These sprawling
schools share all the problems of sprawling development: They are expensive to build and
they are cut-off from neighborhoods, public transportation and existing infrastructure.
Between 1970 and 1990, Minneapolis-St. Paul built 78 new schools in the
outer suburbs and closed 162 schools in good condition located within city limits. (9) In
Maine, though the student population declined by 27,000 students, the state spent a
whopping $727 million on new school construction. (10)
Many districts can't afford such lavish spending on new schools and are
forced to erect temporary classrooms instead. According to its state Department of
Education, Florida alone has almost 18,000 trailers serving as temporary classrooms.
Nationwide, the use of temporary classrooms has reached epidemic proportions. In a 1995
report, the General Accounting Office found that many districts have housed students in
such temporary buildings for years. Julian Garcia, general manager of construction
services for the Houston Independent School District, estimated that the district is using
about 2,100 portable classrooms and leases temporary space in several buildings.
Just like poorly planned housing or commercial development, sprawling
schools are far from public transportation and are usually served only by roads. And just
like the grownups, kids have to sit in traffic to get there. A recent Sierra Club study in
Colorado found that students are wasting more time than ever stuck in traffic. North of
Denver in Larimer County, bus routes take up to a third longer to drive compared with a
decade ago. (11) And with longer routes, busing students to school is becoming very
expensive. In Maine, despite a sharp drop in the student population, spending on bus
service has ballooned to $54 million per year-six times the amount spent 30 years ago.
A recent study of the costs of sprawl in Washington state concluded that
school costs were the number one "hidden cost" of sprawl in the state. They
found that for the Issaquah School District, providing education cost $18,600 for each new
single-family house. However, the impact fees paid by developers- fees meant to recoup the
cost of providing services and structures-ranged from a piddly $1,100 to a modest $6,140.
This leaves a burden of roughly $12,000 per household to be paid for by the state's
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. The Sierra Club's study of
Colorado's Front Range finds similar trends. In three sepa-rate districts in Larimer
County, per-student costs totaled between $10,874 and $12,500-yet the fees charged to
developers totaled between $0 and $446. And even when a city or county passes a modest
impact fee to cover new school costs, developers will protest. That's just what's
happening in Apache Junction, Ariz., where developers recently tried to sue the city for
$1 million in past fees. Since 1988, Apache Junction has charged only $1,300 in impact
fees per new home.
A study produced for "Grow Smart Rhode Island" mapped out two
different scenarios, one of sprawling development and one focusing on revitalizing
existing cities and towns. They found that communities across Rhode Island, if they opted
for smart-growth development, would save a cool $31 million in school addition costs over
the next 20 years.
Costs of School Expansion in Rhode Island
|Change in enrollment 2000-2020
||Cost of school additions (in millions)
||Change in enrollment 200-2020
||Cost of school additions (in millions)
||Net costs of sprawl (in millions)
Like all sprawl subsidies, these hidden pay-outs do more than cost us
money-they tilt the playing field in favor of more sprawl. Building new schools on the
outskirts of town also robs districts of the resources needed for other important
educational needs. And, just to exacerbate the problem, district officials often don't
coordinate with community planners.(14) So communities end up having to play catch-up with
supporting infrastructure like roads and sewer lines, leading to yet more poorly planned
development and the loss of more cherished open space.
So how do we break out of this cycle? By charging developers and residents
the full, fair cost of bringing schools to new communities, and by making sure our
communities and our schools are intelligently designed and properly planned.
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