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Back to School: An Update on Public Policy and Historic Schools 

12-09-2015 17:35

Promoting the continued use of long-standing neighborhood schools has become an important public policy issue for preservationists and others. We’ve come to recognize that schools are more than just buildings, and that there is more at stake than merely saving distinguished or appealing architecture. We’ve learned that the appearance, size, construction quality, and setting of schools can greatly affect the children who spend their days there and the neighborhoods being served.

Yet, just as local zoning codes and design ordinances can make it virtually impossible in many parts of this country to develop places that people love—places like Charleston, Annapolis, San Francisco, Santa Barbara—so the rules governing the construction and renovation of public schools can make it almost impossible to build and retain schools that people love. Small schools. Schools that kids can walk to. Schools that bring neighbors together and define neighborhoods. Well-designed schools that inspire community pride. Such assets are often inadvertently ruled out by misguided policies and practices. In November 2000 the National Trust for Historic Preservation released the report Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School. The report, a response to requests from local communities for help in retaining historic neighborhood schools, describes public policies that promote school sprawl—schools in middle-of-nowhere locations, far from the community they are intended to serve—at the expense of older and historic schools. These policies include:

  • inappropriate acreage standards calling for schools to be located on huge sites (for example, one acre for every 100 students plus 10 acres for an elementary school, plus 20 acres for a middle school, and plus 30 acres for a high school);
  • a disconnect between school facility planning and local community planning; and
  • state funding formulas that discourage the maintenance and renovation of existing schools.

In addition to misguided public policies, an assumption prevails in many minds that a new school automatically provides a better education. There is little evidence to justify this assumption. What we do know is that students perform better in smaller, more community-centered schools. This is especially true for children from lower-income neighborhoods. Unfortunately, public policies promote exactly the opposite— large mega-schools—while discouraging the preservation and modernization of smaller, community-centered schools that already exist. Since the publication of Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School, the National Trust—in partnership with statewide preservation groups—has pursued efforts to reform public policies in several states so that continued use of historic schools can be considered on a level playing field with new school construction. In addition, research conducted by the National Trust has found several states where progressive policies have been enacted for the preservation of historic schools.

Finding a Better Way in Ohio

The disconnect between state policies and community preservation is exemplified in Ohio, where some $23 billion of state and local funds are going toward school construction and modernization. Ohio is under a state supreme court order to equalize school facilities across the state so that schools in the state’s poorest districts are comparable to those in the wealthiest districts. Unfortunately, Ohio has pursued this admirable goal in a way that has caused great damage to existing neighborhoods. Many school facility decisions have been made according to the state’s arbitrary “two-thirds rule,” which says if renovation of an existing school exceeds two-thirds of the cost of new construction, then communities are expected to build new. To meet the site size standards for new schools, communities have felt compelled to destroy existing homes or create “school sprawl” in outlying areas. Because of these policies, Mansfield, Ohio, recently demolished some 60 homes to make room for a new high school on a huge site. And in East Cleveland, the historic Kirk Middle School was recently demolished in large part because a flawed assessment determined that renovating Kirk would exceed Ohio’s “two-thirds rule,” thus making it ineligible for state funds. Although communities can now obtain waivers exempting them from the “two-thirds” rule and state acreage standards, the availability of waivers has not been widely publicized. The National Trust and Heritage Ohio, Inc., have joined forces to clarify and improve Ohio’s rules and explain to local school boards the opportunities now available for waivers to the “two-thirds rule” and minimum acreage standards. An advocacy guide, Saving Ohio’s Historic Schools, is also being produced.

Elsewhere Around the Country

In California, general land-use planning and school facility planning have functioned in two different realms. One reason for this is a 1956 state supreme court decision that determined that public education was the responsibility of the state and therefore school districts are exempted from local zoning ordinances. But some progress has been made by preservation and smart growth advocates seeking better coordination between school facility planning and land-use planning. Governor Gray Davis signed legislation in 2001 calling for a better dialogue between school districts and local planning agencies. And for school districts that wish to preserve historic schools, the state architect has initiated the option of reviewing those buildings under the California State Historic Building Code. In Maryland, the state has eliminated acreage standards altogether. The state decided several decades ago that if it applied the standards used by many jurisdictions, it would have to tear down every school in the city of Baltimore. So Maryland does not apply sprawl-promoting acreage standards. In addition, Maryland actually favors state investments in existing schools. About 83 percent of all state school construction funds go into renovations or improvements to existing schools. In New Jersey, the state’s smart growth policy requires school districts to share their master plans with local planning commissions. This policy doesn’t guarantee cooperative planning, but it does enhance the prospects for better communication between school planners and land-use planners. And on January 31, 2002, Governor James E. McGreevey issued an executive order directing his new Smart Growth Policy Council to “ensure school construction initiatives to promote smart growth and revitalization of communities.” In Indiana, where the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana has played a leadership role on this issue, existing schools (including historic ones) were recently exempted from the state’s site size requirements. This policy change, adopted in January 2002, should make it easier to preserve and renovate historic schools. In Pennsylvania, advocacy by Preservation Pennsylvania persuaded the state education department in 1998 to drop its “60 percent rule,” which, like Ohio’s “two-thirds rule,” with-held state funding from school renovation projects whose cost exceeded 60 percent of the cost of new construction. The department also relaxed previous restrictions against the preservation of schools made with wood frame construction, provided that adequate fire-safety measures were present.

An Ongoing Challenge

Preservation of older neighbor-hood schools will continue to be an important issue for preservationists and communities. Public policies should make it easier for communities to pre- serve and renovate historic neighborhood schools when it is feasible to adapt them for modern educational programs. When it is not, policies should make is easier to build well-designed new schools in the same neighborhood without wreaking havoc on nearby homes. The rules should not call for spread-out “cornfield architecture” on urban settings or put pressure on communities to replace existing schools with sprawl schools on remote sites. America’s historic schools carry a sense of permanence, dignity, and respect for education and civic life. These schools should endure and new schools should be built with the same sense of civic investment.


To help school boards and others visualize the potential of historic schools to meet modern standards, the National Trust has been collecting case studies of successfully renovated schools. To view these—and for more information on the National Trust’s efforts to help communities preserve their neighborhood schools—visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation's website.




Publication Date:September/October 2002

#ForumNews #historicschools

Author(s):Elizabeth G. Pianca
Volume:9
Issue:1

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