Chalk up a victory for Minnesota and neighborhood schools

Huge, sprawling “mega-schools” built at the edges of town aren’t required by law in Minnesota.

Aerial view of a high school, parking lot, and adjacent neighborhood
This view of a mega high school campus from the air shows the impact of location and size on a community. The parking lot is the size of the building, and even residents of an adjacent neighborhood (to the right) that should be able to walk, likely have to drive to the school. SGA Photo

But minimum acreage recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Education have forced local communities into a one-size-fits-all approach, resulting in new schools that are unwalkable and unconnected to the rest of their communities.

Historic neighborhood schools have been abandoned. Schools and families are burdened with excessive transportation costs of driving or busing kids to school, because it is impossible for kids to walk or bike to the new large schools on the edges of town.

On July 1st, this is going to change in Minnesota.

Due to the hard work of SGA coalition member 1000 Friends of Minnesota and other advocates, the new Minnesota Education Omnibus Law (HF 2), signed by Governor Tim Pawlenty two weeks ago, includes provisions to eliminate minimum acreage requirements for schools, and to remove the bias against renovating, rather than rebuilding, old schools.  The law goes into effect at the end of the month.

John Bailey of 1000 Friends of Minnesota refers to the old rules as “arbitrary and outdated state-wide requirements.” These state rules required extraordinarily large lots for schools — 40 acres for a middle school, and 60 for a high school, for instance — no matter what the desire of the local community.  And as schools aged, the laws were stacked in favor of constructing new schools on large lots rather than renovating the old ones, even if renovation was a cheaper option preferred by the community.

The acreage “recommendations” resulted in historic neighborhood schools in walkable locations often being shuttered in favor of new mega-campuses on the edge of town, removing the option of children walking and biking to a smaller school in their neighborhood.

The new provisions are part of a larger push to align transportation and land use policies with Minnesota’s green initiatives — something supported by a broad segment of the populace. But a more central issue at hand was the ability of localities to make school siting decisions on their own — without the state treating the issue the same regardless of the size, location or preference of the community.

“We had broad consensus across party lines that this requirement was an unwarranted intrusion on local control,” said Bailey. “Local communities are reasonably intelligent folks; they can figure out where to put a school.”

Does your state still have minimum acreage requirements?

The Council of Educational Facility Planners (CEFPI) revised their “bible” for school builders, “The Guide for Planning Educational Facilities,” in 2004, removing all minimum acreage requirements for schools. The American Planning Association pointed out that because “a one-size-fits-all approach is dated and can work counter to a variety of goals, the new guide encourages communities to analyze their needs in order to make appropriate siting decisions.”

Even though CEFPI has changed course, many states still have these outdated recommendations on the books.