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Site Seeing

Outgrowing a district's school facilities means it's time to open a new school. Finding an adequate

In urban, suburban and rural districts alike, leaders inevitably come up against some formidable challenges when seeking and acquiring a new school site.

In the city, the problem most often is the lack of available land. Even locating an open site for a small campus of several acres is no easy feat. The alternative is having to create a site by buying up properties in the neighborhood.

In suburbia, land availability problems are also at play. But instead of negotiating for homes and properties, administrators may find themselves knocking on the doors of home developers who have already acquired any open land.

Even if a school site is
inexpensive, it may not be
a bargain.

In rural areas, negotiations for land involve familiar people, but the infrastructure needed for the new school--sewer, water, utilities, roads, to name the basics--will probably not be in place.

Adding to the pressure: Choosing to place a school in a particular spot changes that neighborhood forever. Kelvin Lee, superintendent of Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District in Roseville, Calif., says the ripple effect on the community can go two ways, either inducing development or growth around the school or shifting the focus of a particular school program. "By investing in a school site, the district is actually making a powerful statement about its expectations for community," Lee says.

Here's how experts in site planning suggest handling the process:

Site Search

First off, know state acreage specifications. It will save time and provide a guide in the search for school sites. Most states have their own acreage specifications for school facilities. The Council of Educational Facility Planners International has more general recommendations: Elementary schools should have 10 acres, plus an additional acre for every 100 students; middle/junior high schools need 20 acres, plus one acre for every 100 students; and high schools require 30 acres plus one acre for every 100 students.

Some states accept alternatives and waivers to the published requirements, guidelines or standards, which often differentiate between existing schools and new schools. When contemplating a new school site, the State Department of Education can provide specifics on school site size requirements, guidelines or standards.

Consider unusual sites and unlikely locations. They work particularly well for schools with unique programs. Moore Square Museums Magnet Middle School, for example, sits in a once-blighted area of Raleigh. The three-story school has a four-acre site close to several different museums--a location crucial to its instructional program, which offers opportunities to learn through interactions with exhibits and performances.

"Parents know that they have a choice in coming to this school. It doesn't have a track or football field--but it does have a full-size gym and an auditorium area, although not large," says Mike Burriss, assistant superintendent for facilities.

Completed four years ago, the facility has had a major positive impact on its neighborhood. Burriss explains that it "gave the community kind of a focal point and showed that people were willing to invest in the city of Raleigh. ... Since the school's been built, from that area of the site eastward, we've been the catalyst for the transition of three blocks of housing into new town homes and newly renovated spaces. This has really been an impetus for business on the east side of Raleigh," Burriss points out.

Get to know developers. Ideally, the district should make contact with home developers as soon as they begin to acquire property. Often, developers must throw in a school site as part of their development plan. Although contributing land for a school takes away from the number of plots on which the developer can build homes, developers recognize that a good school in a good location will attract buyers to the development and help them sell homes. Make sure the site doesn't need soil remediation, have a bad, non-central location, or have a configuration that would be impossible for school construction.

Dave Peterson, director of operations for Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools, makes a habit of talking with developers early. "You need to be able to plan for the infrastructure--the streets and utilities--because that's going to dictate how the rest of the lots in the development are going to lay out," he notes.

Double up. Placing more than one school on a single site means, of course, having to find only one site. But there are some operational benefits as well. "You can share ball fields and play areas that may be common between the two schools, and maintenance costs will be reduced as well since there is only one site to maintain," says Chris Peck, Texas division vice president for McCarthy Building Companies. Peck has seen site sharing most common in suburban areas, where many districts are building two schools in are separate buildings located at close proximity to one another.

Dallas Independent School District, meanwhile, is building two different schools in a single building. Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School and Vickery Meadows Middle School, scheduled for 2006 completion, have a total of 218,000 square feet. The two schools will be physically joined but exist as two entirely separate facilities with separate entrances from adjacent streets.

Locate a school in an older building instead of building anew. Often, buildings that were once used for another purpose can be creatively adapted to be re-used as schools. (see Expect the Unexpected, below).

Site a new school next to another facility. Simply having a joint parking area can mean shared maintenance and development costs. "It's common for schools to share parking lots and maintenance costs with libraries or nature centers that are next door. It's a win-win situation," says Stuart E. Franzen, principal of Celina, Ohio-based Fanning/Howey.

Consider using the power of eminent domain (but only when absolutely necessary). While exercising this legal power to take privately owned property for public use is typically viewed as a last resort for school districts, the process can free up land needed for schools.

It's typically used today when a district needs a new school building or addition and there is no other site option. Time, however, is not on the district's side. Expect negotiations and possible court visits to add months--and possibly even years--to the schedule, as well as eat up additional money set aside in the project budget.

St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools found itself going the eminent domain route in the late 1990s. To build the John A. Johnson Elementary School, the district first acquired 63 homes, apartments, duplexes and vacant lots, each owned by a different party. Besides the considerable purchase costs, which amounted to $4 million, the system spent $1 million to relocate all of the households. But when the deal was completed, 18 months after negotiations began with the building owners, the district had a total of 13 acres, or five-and-a-half city blocks, on which to site its school.

Remember that building can be done up instead of out. In dealing with a small building site, districts can choose to build vertically rather than horizontally. "We've been doing a lot more vertical construction to existing schools to minimize site acquisitions," says Danny Jardine, senior vice president of The Facility Group in Smyrna, Ga., an engineering, architecture and construction management firm. "A lot of it depends on topography or land costs, but it's a good alternative."

Sizing It Up

Find out if the school site is part of a greater plan. According to Dry Creek Elementary's Lee, some communities have plans for their development, and a school is a part that must fit into a grand plan. "In that community plan, a school becomes a central portion of what can be considered a public asset," Lee says.

Ensure that the site meets the school's needs. "There's no point in picking out a site that doesn't meet the educational requirements, even if it's in the right place," says Yale Stenzler, an educational consultant and former director of Maryland Public School Construction Program. In evaluating sites, consider all activities that must happen at school, from food and supplies deliveries to ensuring student security.

Likewise, instructional needs are a consideration. Will students be able to go outside as part of their learning? "If you have a nice, wooded site, districts have included hiking trails that you can make part of classes, for instance," says Irene Nigaglioni a partner of PBK Architects in Houston.

Weigh potential locations for convenience and safety. The very best building won't make a great school without these factors.

Central locations are ideal. "A school has got to be in the right spot to serve the proposed student population," notes Jardine. "You don't want to put it too far one way or another in an attendance zone because that will limit you to the long run as you go through the changing demographics. Every 15 to 18 years, the demographic population typically changes substantially and you will have to adjust attendance zone boundaries. ... Place the school within the geographic boundaries to give you the maximum ability to make modifications over the school's 50-year lifecycle."

Ample security is also a must for today's schools. Sites should have multiple access routes, and then the building should be oriented to provide maximum security for children in outdoor play areas and bus drop-off and pick-up spots.

Measure the pros and cons of different sites. What is the true cost of purchasing and developing each site? "We might take six or more sites and compare advantages and disadvantages and isolate different costs of each site," says Franzen. "For instance, one site might have wetlands, another could need extra roadway or driveway improvements, and yet another could require us to run a sanitary sewer one mile, while another site has it right across the street."

If possible, look for a site where development is already planned, or where basic infrastructure (i.e. sewer and water) are at least in place.

Look beyond the purchase price. Even if a school site is inexpensive and seems ideal, it may not be a bargain. A former industrial site, for instance, might need extensive soil remediation to remove petroleum or asbestos from the ground.

"Sometimes people give districts property as a part of a development agreement and it's the worst piece of property around because they don't want to build on it. It looks like a great gift but becomes a great burden," notes Lee.

Franzen, agrees. "It's more and more difficult to find any site available and if it is still available, you have to ask why didn't the developers choose it, especially for prime residential development," he says.

Consider energy conservation. Will the site allow architects to take advantage of natural opportunities for energy conservation? For instance, when a building takes advantage of natural sunlight, lighting and heating costs drop.

Plan space for adequate parking. Especially in an urban area, parking can be a thorny issue. One St. Paul school experienced a worst-case parking scenario: The unavailability of spots led to teacher vacancies. "For a while, we had a hard time stabilizing staff at this urban school because there was no free parking and teachers regarded having to pay for parking as a pay cut," notes Patrick Quinn, executive director of school services. "We now pay for parking and our teachers are no longer leaving to find positions in schools that offer parking for free."

Pay careful attention to demographic trends. Look at how quickly your community is actually growing. Are there major housing developments planned or in construction? Or is there a housing surplus in your area? Any anticipated changes in the student population must be considered before actually scoping out school sites.

Looking Ahead

Procure land in advance. Buy school sites before they're needed. Some districts try to buy land at least five years before a school must open. District data--including building permits and bus transportation lists--can reveal how many more children are entering the system each year and help predict when a new or expanded school will be necessary. "The idea is to start looking for a site now, when the price is right, and then the district can have a site bank to draw from when they need it," Stenzler explains.

Work closely with the town or city. If possible, place a district representative on the local planning and zoning board. "We have an assistant superintendent who serves on the planning and zoning committee for the city," says Peterson of Mesa, Ariz. "As new developments go in, we're apprised of them right away. One of the things that the commission makes sure of is that the developers come to us so we can get some school sites reserved in their developments. That way, they're not coming back later telling you that they wanted to put in high-end homes where we want to put the school."

Employ Smart Growth Schools concepts whenever possible. This philosophy encourages broad community involvement in school facility planning. Facilities are located within a neighborhood and are safe for children to walk to. They also: support community use after hours; fit in well with the surrounding neighborhood; make good use of existing resources; and tend to be small in size.

Smart Growth Schools often help build community involvement in education, too. A community-based school can save money in the long run, since transportation costs may be significantly reduced if children can walk to school. And adapting another building to be used as a school can be very cost effective, potentially saving millions in costs associated with new construction.

As for location specifics, one of the main principles of Smart Growth is to open schools near the population center, in a neighborhood. This has several benefits, says Stenzler. "First, you reduce busing transportation costs, and second, you make the school accessible to people in the community. ... And you'll have more students walking to school, which provides health benefits."

In addition, people not affiliated with the school will be naturally encouraged to volunteer or have connections there. "You might have senior citizens working in the lunch room, or the community might host evening classes in the building," Stenzler notes.

Use the Buddy System. Community agency partnerships may result in a multiple-use building that includes a school and other facilities. These community-based schools become a true center of community life in their areas. For instance, St. Paul's Johnson Elementary was created out of an old high school that had closed in 1962. The district realized it needed to acquire land around the building to add parking onto it, for instance, because the site only had spaces for 10 cars. Located in a formerly blighted area, the school today also houses medical clinics, a dental clinic, social service agencies and a housing office.

Plan ahead for future expansion. Purchase sites with room for the facilities to grow, if need be. Jardine of The Facility Group reminds, "You need to think about the long haul, making sure you've provided adequate space for the building for any kind of expansion that you may think about in the future."

Peggy Bresnick Kendler, a freelance writer based in Monroe, Conn., frequently covers school construction issues.

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