For several years Brendle Group has supported K-12 school districts in their sustainability efforts, from developing sustainable design guidelines for new schools to comprehensive and district-wide sustainability management plans. Rarely, however, have we delved into the issue of school siting.
Recently I had the chance to travel to Billings, Montana with our consultant partner SRA International to assist the local school district and community with school siting issues under a contract with the U.S. EPA’s Office of Smart Growth. Specifically, our goals for the project were to help the community and school district find ways to better coordinate on school siting issues using a “scorecard” tool that would help them with plan coordination, stakeholder involvement, and application of siting criteria.
During the trip emotions ran high, as the school district was under the gun to “figure out” how and where they were going to site two new middle schools to get a ballot measure on the Fall 2013 ballot by later this summer. For the first time, school district leaders, Board members, community staff, and other community stakeholders met around a table to flesh out the details – a true first in itself for having such a broad set of stakeholders at the table to discuss a critical issue for the community. We shared with them our draft tool and tried to lend what help we could to the group as they got started on the siting process.
Where schools go in a community can have profound effects on a community – not to mention the children themselves. Can the students get to school by walking or biking, or is a car or bus necessary? How does the site fit into the fabric of the community – including both current land uses as well as the community’s future desires? Does the site itself offer opportunities to incorporate sustainability from design and learning perspectives – such as renewable energy but also learning landscapes? Can the school site itself also be a resource for the community? And for all of these factors, what are the short- and long-term costs, savings, and other tradeoffs and benefits?
The experience gave me fresh perspective on our sustainability work with school districts – and with communities – highlighting just how intertwined school and community planning can be.