The Location of Public Schools: Implications for Communities and Planners, and School District Decision-Making in the Puget Sound Region
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THE LOCATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS: IMPLICATIONS FOR COMMUNITIES AND PLANNERS, AND SCHOOL DISTRICT DECISION-MAKING IN THE PUGET SOUND REGION by Jason Garnham, 2015, 100 pages. Chair of the Supervisory committee: Jan Whittington, Ph.D. Public schools are some of our communities’ most important and costly infrastructures assets. School location affects transportation choices, property values, and student health and achievement, and is implicated in increasing urban sprawl and economic and racial geographic inequality. Yet, school districts operate independent of the municipalities in which they serve, limiting interaction and coordination in planning and siting school facilities. Schools, consequently, are generally overlooked in planning research and practice. This leads to the question: How are public school siting decisions made? And, how do they overlap with planning goals? To answer this question, semi-structured interviews were conducted with officials from fifteen school districts in the Puget Sound region, providing open-ended narratives for a qualitative analysis exploring this poorly understood topic. Despite the regional context of state-required coordinated planning for capital facilities, the narratives reveal that land availability and cost, coupled with perceived site acreage and community facilities needs, are the primary factors influencing school location. School siting is largely a technical process undertaken by consultants and facilities experts. Further, school districts’ reliance on voter-approved bond financing inhibits long-term planning and prevents prioritization of broader location criteria. Competing for land in a competitive market, school districts are challenged to sell the higher cost of prime, centrally-locates sites to their voters, pushing schools to less desirable areas. In light of the constraints faced by school districts, local and regional planning goals are more likely to be achieved when schools are systematically included in land use planning processes. The lesson learned from case examples is that locating schools to best meet community needs depends on stakeholder engagement and cooperative interaction between school districts and municipalities. The data reveals that coordination and interaction between districts, municipalities, and citizens increases when school districts face pressure induced by enrollment growth and limited availability of land. Sub-area Master plans and economic development plans also present special opportunities to forge lasting partnerships. Ultimately, as costly and critical infrastructure, school sites should be chosen to according to a variety of criteria, using the same processes that guide development of other facilities and services deemed necessary for maintaining and improving the sustainability, economic vitality, and quality of life in our communities.
- Urban planning