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Back to School for Planners

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Schools are an important community asset. However, there is often a disconnect between school facility planning and other town planning functions. In several states, schools are exempt from local zoning regulations, while in others local review is limited. In addition, capital planning for schools is frequently not integrated with other local capital planning or economic development efforts.

However, even in states where planning commissions or boards don’t review schools under local zoning, planners can take an active role in developing a common community agenda for issues relating to the location and design of schools, and how school needs fit with the community’s comprehensive plan goals and objectives. Here are some things planning commissioners can do:

1. Ask to review a copy of your school district’s facility master plan. This document should have information about plans for school closure, repair, expansion, modernization, renovation, and new construction. Are the district’s school plans in sync with the community’s comprehensive plan? Are school planners and town planners using the same demographic data?

2. Get a handle on how school investments are planned in your jurisdiction. In many communities the planning commission prepares, or provides comments on, the local capital improvement plan. Use this opportunity to raise questions about the relationship between your community’s capital improvement plan and the school district’s capital investment or construction plans. Many school districts form advisory committees on school construction. Get one of your members on that committee and work toward school investments that meet educational and other community goals.

3. Find out what state and local policies or rules drive school investment decisions in your town. Some “rules” are actually just policies, and can be more flexible than most people realize. For example, a community in a state with minimum acreage standards may be able to get a waiver for a smaller school site.

4. Support the maintenance of your community’s existing school facilities. How does the school district allocate money for maintaining and upgrading existing schools? Keeping schools in good shape can help keep families in existing neighborhoods rather than chasing down the “new good school” at the edge of town. It can also help stabilize neighborhoods. The physical condition of schools is a high visibility cue to residents (and prospective residents) about whether the area is being invested in or “abandoned.” …

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