Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Build Schools in Neighborhoods where Children Live

Walkability and School Siting Policy are on the verge of colliding. Across the nation -- and certainly within our own county -- school districts are faced with renovating, restoring, or replacing aging buildings. Yet, the economy, environment, wellness of children, and increasing school property taxes are HOT topics in this election year. How can schools meet the needs of the children and still serve the greater public? Many districts are building on precious farm land, overlooking the current movement toward Smart Growth for "cheap" land purchases to build expansive school campuses. Research through the Environmental Protection Agency, Smart Growth Alliance, and many other resources suggest the overall costs of such land development are too high -- intensely harmful to our environment, economy, quality of life, and in direct correlation to sprawling development. I propose that they seek the choices that are most obvious -- renovate or build additions on their current buildings. If either is absolutely impossible or impractical, replace existing buildings with a new facility on the same lot -- AND IN WALKABLE, ESTABLISHED NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE CHILDREN LIVE. I sent the following content to a list of decision makers -- including residents of Exeter Township who are voters and do have the power to make decisions for their own community.

The Millmont Elementary and Science Magnet School at 300 Carroll Street, Reading is an example of a walkable neighborhood school that employs the principles of Smart Growth in its design and function. The new school is a 62,542-square foot building on an 89,406-square foot (2.05 acre) parcel. It will actually be two schools: the top floor will be a K-5 elementary school housing 500 students; and the first floor will be a 6th grade magnet school housing 325 students. Exeter Township School District (like so many other districts) is struggling to find a solution to overcrowding. We can look to examples set by our neighbors in Reading and Antietam who have renovated older schools in established walkable neighborhoods.

The Exeter Township School District Administration Building is located on 3650 Perkiomen on 1.79 acres, only .26 acre smaller than the new school in Reading. If we choose the site for our elementary school, we could house 500 students K-4 there. All of the children who live West of Perkiomen Avenue could attend elementary school in a community-centered location. Beautiful homes in well-established neighborhoods surround this property. Adjacent to the site is a community church with parking to spare. As it stands, 3650 Perkiomen is a historic property that must be renovated or replaced because of its age and disrepair, a ‘brownfield.’ The school district is planning to sell the property to a commercial buyer. The most environmental use of that property would be to choose it now for a new elementary school, one we desperately need. Imagine the cost savings when we do not need to purchase more land but can use a site that already belongs to the district, a site that already holds an elementary school.

We can renovate, add-on, or replace that building, allowing space for 500 students and still have room for a playground and staff parking. There would be no or very little cost to build new streets, traffic lights, or other infrastructure needs. Township Supervisors have agreed to permit a third floor if necessary, so the actual footprint of the building could be even smaller, allowing for more playfields or parking as necessary. This property is the best location in Exeter to serve the school board's own criteria. Mr. Quinter, School Board Member, said he expects new, young families will move into older neighborhoods and homes they can afford, ones just like those surrounding 3650 Perkiomen Avenue – the school he walked to as a child. I agree. Why not build schools in neighborhoods where children live?

A parent who has been very vocal on the school siting issue spoke several times at Supervisors meetings about the walkability of the Bausher’s property, emphasizing the importance of students having walking access to their neighborhood school. I support her in concept because walkability is a key principal of Smart Growth; however, only 100 kids could have potentially walked along Ritter’s Road. All of the children in Reiffton and Crestwood could walk safely to school with this plan. The reuse of this 'brown space' would open the potential for more outside funding from state and federal sources and would address another key principal of Smart Growth.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association …sponsored a publication called Renovate or Replace? The Case for Restoring and Reusing Older School Buildings. The booklet features essays by Gov. Rendell's top cabinet officers, arguing that renovating older schools can save tax dollars, reinforce established communities, and still provide facilities that meet 21st-century educational standards. “The Public School Code … was amended in 2005 to provide an extra state reimbursement to school districts that renovate schools. The extra reimbursement also applies to additions to schools. If a school is brought up to "green" building standards, the district will receive yet another subsidy bonus” (Hylton, Lessons in Economy p2).

Several papers were available requesting parent input and comments at the door as we entered the recent parent forum. The school board requests our opinion on these matters. If you have an opinion, now is the time to share it. The board and administration expect to make a decision before December and to begin the project as soon as possible. It is my opinion that building our new school at 3650 Perkiomen Avenue is the best plan for our community.

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