Driving up costs: Reconsidering school sites in an era of unpredictable gas prices

Crossposted from the Governors’ Institute on Community Design.

School buses in the fall, originally uploaded by Flickr user tncountryfan.
Fuel costs are rising rapidly, and individual drivers aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. School transportation systems around the country are struggling to adjust to cost increases. In a survey of school districts conducted last month, almost 76 percent of transportation directors report that rising fuel costs are affecting operations.

Unfortunately, in the past few decades many school districts have – literally – built gas price vulnerability into the system, often influenced by shortsighted state standards for school construction and renovation. For example, many states require schools to be built on excessively large lots to accommodate fields and parking.

As a result, more and more schools are built on the outskirts of communities, far away from the students they serve. While 87 percent of students lived within one mile of school in 1969, that number had dropped to 21 percent (PDF) by 2001. Even when students live within walking distance, roads are often too hazardous for walking to be a safe option.

The alternative? Lots of buses and automobiles, which means lots (and increasing amounts) of money spent on gasoline and maintenance.

Some states, however, are leading the way with policies to encourage a return to community-centered schools located within walking distance of as many student homes and community amenities (such as parks and libraries) as possible.

For example, explains the National Trust for Historic Preservation (PDF), the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority revised school site recommendations in 2009. The State shifted away from recommending a specific acreage and now asks that districts submit information on the desired learning environment when they apply for state school construction funding. Other states that have eliminated minimum acreage requirements include South Carolina (2003), Rhode Island (2005) and Minnesota (2009).

In 2010, New Hampshire’s legislature passed a law requiring school construction or renovation plans to comply with the State’s statutorily adopted principles of smart growth and its comprehensive plan. It also “limits additional land acquisition (PDF) in school renovation projects to only that which is necessary to ensure the safe flow of traffic.”

Because of rising fuel costs, school districts are cutting field trips, reallocating general fund dollars, and reducing repair funding to make ends meet. Twenty-two percent of districts have reduced bus services.

Gas prices will continue to fluctuate, and these short-term stopgaps won’t provide long-term sustainability. As one part of the solution, state government can help make sure more schools are located in places that minimize transportation costs – and maximize the number of dollars available for student education and enrichment.

For more state policy recommendations to encourage community-centered schools, see Policies That Work: A Governors’ Guide to Growth and Development.