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Stop Sprawl
Sprawl Costs Us All


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. (12)

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 taxpayers.(13)

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



Smart Growth

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)
Core -3,400 $0 1,900 $19 -$19
Ring 500 $5 1,100 $12 -$7
Suburban 5,200 $52 2,000 $21 +$31
Rural 6,600 $66 4,000 $40 +$26
State 8,900 $123 9,000 $92 +$31

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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