Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Overcoming Challenges to Community-Centered Schools 

12-09-2015 17:35

In May 2008, the National Trust launched the “Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart School Policies” project to encourage the retention and development of community-centered schools. Such schools use existing infrastructure and buildings, share spaces for educational and recreational activities with the community, fit in well with the neighborhood, and typically offer students an opportunity to walk or bike to school. While recognizing that school location decisions are made locally, we believe that providing support at the state level—either by adopting new policies or removing existing policy barriers—can encourage local communities to build or retain community-centered schools.

The Challenge

Today many communities are making the choice to abandon neighborhood schools in order to build sprawling facilities on the outskirts of town. However, a more sustainable model exists. Communities can choose to create or renovate community-centered schools that help achieve educational objectives and also anchor local neighborhoods, support better public health, create a cleaner environment, and offer additional amenities to the community.

Because we believe few public institutions are more important to the sustainability of a community than schools, the National Trust is no stranger to this policy issue. In 2000 we included historic neighborhood schools on our list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, published the seminal policy report Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School in the Age of Sprawl, and developed helpful guides for advocates.

This new project, funded through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and with generous funding of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, brings together leaders from different fields and advocates in six states to find new ways of overcoming state-level barriers to community-centered schools.

Six partners were selected to receive a grant and technical assistance from the National Trust for Historic Preservation: Preservation Pennsylvania; the Healthy Schools Campaign of Illinois in partnership with the Lt. Governor Pat Quinn’s Office and Landmarks Illinois; the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance; Oregon’s Innovation Partnership; the South Carolina Design Arts Partnership; and California’s Ad Hoc School Siting Coalition that includes the Local Government Commission, the Center for Cities and Schools and the Safe Routes to school National Partnership.

To overcome specific challenges to achieving community-centered schools in their state, these partners are developing new research and educational materials. Along with these new tools, the project will also focus on building a national coalition and creating a publication that offers ways for states to promote community-centered schools. For project updates, visit

State-Level Obstacles for Local Communities

Real and Perceived Site Standards

Frequently set at the state level, site standards for schools, also sometimes known as minimum acreage requirements, present a big obstacle to maintaining older schools and locating new schools within walkable neighborhoods.

State and local school agencies adopted these standards from a policy guidebook produced in the early 1970s by the Council for Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI). Typical acreage standards required an elementary school with 400 students to be located on 14 acres of land; a middle school with 600 students requires 16 acres; and a high school with 2,000 students, 50 acres. Contrast that with early-20th century schools and their ball fields which typically utilized between 3 and 10 acres within a compact, walkable neighborhood.

At the urging of the National Trust, EPA, and others, CEFPI now calls for these oversized school lot standards to be abolished. The council’s publications, such as the CEFPI Guide for Educational Facility Planning, 3 now endorse a flexible smart growth approach that supports schools as centers of community. By adopting CEFPI’s new recommendations, communities can invest responsibly in their schools while preserving their neighborhoods and conserving historic and natural resources.

Yet it is hard to change old habits, and getting school districts to recognize the new guidelines has been likened to getting an ocean liner turned around at sea. Many school districts and school architects continue to plan as if those outdated standards either still exist or are requirements, not just recommendations. Even when the policy is reversed at the state level, local perceptions about these acreage requirements persist. Recognizing that acreage standards encourage the construction of massive, isolated schools that are inaccessible to the communities they serve, South Carolina abolished such standards in 2003 4. Despite this change in policy, local districts continue to build sprawl schools on the outside of town.

Advocates need to campaign to remove these standards at the state level, and also to educate decision-makers about the impact of these standards on the community.

Deferred Maintenance

Communities are discouraged from keeping their existing schools in use if they’ve been poorly maintained and allowed to deteriorate. New York State comptroller Carl McCall stated, “There is a built-in fiscal incentive for school districts to avoid prudent maintenance expenditures, and instead let physical structures deteriorate until replacement is the only real option. State aid reimbursement is provided explicitly for capital expenditures at a generous rate, whereas it is not for routine maintenance.5” The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities reports that in 1920 about 14 percent of local school district operating budgets went to maintenance, while only 4 percent went to maintenance in 1990. Meanwhile the U.S. Government Accounting Office says one third of all schools need extensive repairs.

However, some states, such as Massachusetts, require that school districts spend at least half of their maintenance budgets each fiscal year. School districts that fail to do so may not receive state funding for capital projects in the future. Massachusetts also offers “incentive percentage points” to school districts with excellent or good maintenance ratings when considering their funding requests. Massachusetts’ policies for improving the maintenance of schools were adopted following a policy advocacy campaign led by Historic Massachusetts, Inc. (now called Preservation Mass) in 2000.

Gaining more money for maintenance and ensuring that school districts are not penalized by the state for spending money to maintain existing neighborhood schools should be a priority of preservationists.

States can also create local construction jobs and extend the life cycle of existing buildings by providing additional monies or incentives for regular maintenance. According to real estate consultant Donovan Rypkema, rehabilitation generally uses about 20 percent more labor and, in turn, produces a greater number of jobs than new construction. Typically, in new construction half of the investment goes to materials and half to labor. In historic rehabilitations, 60 to 70 percent of the investment goes to labor. As compared to new construction, every one million dollars spent to rehabilitate a building results in $120,000 more initially remaining in the community, five to nine more construction jobs created, and an average of 4.7 more new non-construction jobs created.6

“Silo” Planning

Lack of coordinated planning also works against community-centered schools. In some instances, local school districts are reactive, struggling to keep up with the increased number of students that come with new development. In other states, districts do not have to follow any local planning or zoning laws, which sometimes leads to conflicts with other community development goals. To efficiently manage our resources and minimize conflicts among competing community goals, coordinated planning among school districts, boards, and local planning entities is necessary.

In some parts of Florida, burgeoning school enrollment led to overcrowded schools in the late 1990s. Using the state’s growth management mandate that requires adequate public facilities be available on a timely basis to accommodate growing populations, lawmakers expanded this “concurrency” requirement to coordinate school construction with new residential development.

By sharing data and coordinating planning with their multiple municipalities, Florida school districts plan to provide enough schools to serve residential development projected by local governments. This state required coordination of local planning is achieved in many ways.

For example, school districts provide local governments with an annual report of project needs and capital improvement plans, while local governments direct school districts to potential locations consistent with existing land-use designations. Also, each school district must provide citizens with “opportunities for involvement” when formulating its comprehensive plan, while local governments involve school officials
when developing their comprehensive plans.

School districts and local governments can also work together to plan joint use of facilities. In some states, it’s a regular practice. New Hampshire communities and school districts often share athletic fields and library facilities. Others states, including Massachusetts, give “incentive percentage points” for innovative community uses of school facilities when a school considers applications for state funds. Many other states could encourage this cost-saving practice by offering authorizing language for localities, or financial incentives.

By mandating or providing incentives for closer planning coordination, states can create win-win results for their citizens.

Cost Percentage Rules

“Percentage rules” also present a barrier. In some states, if the cost of renovating an existing school exceeds a stated percentage of the cost of building a new one, then the school district is advised or required by the state to build new. The numbers vary from state to state (e.g., Ohio has a two-thirds rule; New Hampshire, a 60 percent rule). These arbitrary percentage rules often prevent a full cost comparison of new construction versus the cost of renovation because certain costs, such as demolishing the existing building, building new infrastructure, and acquiring land, are not part of the calculation.

In some states, failure to choose the new construction option means forfeiting state financial assistance. For example, Ohio’s “two-thirds rule” says that if the cost of renovating an older school exceeds two thirds of the cost of a new school, the state will not provide any money for the project. Thus even if a state-of-the-art school can be provided at less cost by renovating an existing school, school districts are often pressured—or even required—to build new.

States can encourage the sustainable practice of rehabilitating existing school infrastructure if they eliminate these funding rules and related prejudices against older and historic schools.

Incomplete or Inaccurate Information

Feasibility studies help those involved in making school facility decisions understand the choice between new construction and renovation of an existing building. Yet these feasibility studies sometimes contain inflated costs for renovation, and/or fail to include all the costs of building on a new site in the comparative cost analysis.

In some states, regulations and processes help provide more complete information for decision-makers. For example, in Connecticut, the feasibility analysis for a new facility must include direct costs such as land acquisition, planning fees, construction costs, and equipment and furnishing costs, as well as indirect costs such as those for new sewers, roads, transportation, or utilities and financing fees.

Florida requires that studies on the feasibility of renovating historic schools be conducted by design professionals with preservation expertise before such schools may be demolished. The state also requires school boards to notify the state historic preservation office and give it an opportunity to comment on state-assisted projects prior to the approval or expenditure of any state funds when new construction or renovation projects involve a historic resource. In addition, school rehabilitation projects assisted with state funds must comply with special standards intended to ensure that character-defining features of historic schools are preserved.

This year, New Hampshire Senator Martha Fuller Clark, an Advisor to the National Trust, proposed Senate Bill 59 to change New Hampshire’s process so that the municipal planning entity and the voting public would have 90 days to comment on the feasibility of alternatives before the vote and not 60 days before the construction, as is the case now. Such a state-mandated change in the process would help ensure that everyone had timely access to information about the various options before it was too late.

Policy and Advocacy Resources and Allies

For almost a decade, the National Trust has been looking at the state-level policies affecting these local decisions through a partnership with the Building Educational Success Together (BEST) collaborative. BEST partners work to make schools safe, educationally adequate, and community anchors for the surrounding neighborhood. In addition to surveying state policy that affects school location decisions in all 50 states 8 and reporting on how states can either support or undermine their neighborhood school, the National Trust and its BEST partners also looked at model state policies in four areas: financing, planning,facilities management, and schools as centers of community. Read the survey results and model policies at

In addition to the BEST collaborative, there are many other individuals and organizations working to encourage community centered schools:

  • parents and health officials alarmed by the increasing obesity rate among children;
  • Safe Routes to School advocates, a network of individuals and organizations working to increase activity levels in children by developing safer ways for children to walk or bike to school;
  • educators who believe smaller schools offer better learning environments;
  • health advocates who want to encourage walkable communities;
  • residents and business owners who want their tax dollars spent efficiently;
  • design professionals who believe sustainable solutions exist for retrofitting older schools; and
  • local government officials who want to expand community support for school facilities and educational programming.

In addition to affecting the physical and fiscal health of a community, investment in school facilities also supports other community goals such as creating new jobs, achieving social equity, improving air and water quality, mitigating climate change, reducing number of vehicle miles traveled, and sustaining open space and useable farmland. Given the environmental and economic crises we are facing, it is more vital than ever before for states to support community-centered schools.

The Numbers Illustrate the Challenges

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1930 there were 262,000 school facilities; by 2002, there were 91,000 school facilities. Over that same time, the student population doubled from 28 million to 53.5 million. By 2002 twice as many students were being educated in three times fewer schools.

While some of the decrease in school facilities can be attributed to the transition from one-room school houses to larger urban facilities in the 1940s and 1950s, much of the decrease occurred in the second half of the last century with the trend toward building “mega-schools” or even “megacampuses” with thousands of students and large amounts of land.

Interestingly, a 2006 study found that spending on school construction doubled from 1995 through 2004 with school districts spending record-breaking totals—more than $37 billion annually by 2002—on hard construction expenses alone.7

With such significant amounts of money being spent by state governments, requiring coordinated
planning to align school facilities with community development goals makes sense.

Importance of Community Based Schools and Health

The number of overweight children in America has tripled in the past 30 years.1 One contributing factor is that fewer children walk or bike to school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 85 percent of children’s trips to school are made by car, school bus, public transit, or other modes of transportation. Just 15 percent of all trips are made by walking or bicycling.2

In 1969, 48 percent of children walked or biked to school.

By locating our schools within walkable neighborhoods, we can help increase physical activity among our country’s youth.

How You Can Help Promote Community Schools

To encourage community-centered schools in your area, start by examining your state’s policy and practices that relate to school location decisions by going to and If barriers exist, determine whether they can be rectified through administrative measures or whether they require specific legislation. Identify areas in which there are policy vacuums such as incentives for rehabilitation, grants for “big ticket” maintenance needs like VAC system upgrades, or a process for identifying and protecting schools listed in state or national registers of historic places.

Share your goals for increasing the number of community-centered schools in your state with allies like those listed above.

Speak out about the effects of state policy and practices on the local decision making process at local meetings and through letters to the editor.

Adapt model policies such as those listed above to your state’s circumstances and encourage their adoption.

Once in place, be sure to monitor policies to make sure they are properly implemented.9


1 The national prevalence of overweight and obesity is monitored using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Data from NHANES I (1971–1974) to NHANES 2003–2006 show the following increases: Among school-aged children, aged 6–11 years, the prevalence of overweight increased from 4 percent to 17 percent, while among school-aged adolescents, aged 12–19 years, the prevalence of overweight increased from 6.1 percent to 17.6 percent.

2 Kids-Walk-to-School Fact Sheet, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (NHTS 2001, analyzed by S. Ham DNPA 2005); The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) is a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) effort sponsored by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to collect data on both long-distance and local travel by the American public. The joint survey gathers triprelated data such as mode of transportation, duration, distance, and purpose of trip. It also gathers demographic,geographic, and economic data for analysis purposes. The 2001-2002 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) updates information gathered by two series of travel surveys—the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey (NPTS) conducted in 1969,1977, 1983, 1990, and 1995 and the American Travel Survey (ATS) conducted in 1977 and 1995.

3 The guide focuses on the various aspects of progressive school planning and the importance of creating connections among all the constituents that are necessary to the planning process.


5 H. Carl McCall (State of New York Comptroller), School Facilities: Conditions, Problems and Solutions, October 1997,

6 Donovan Rypkema, The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader’s Guide, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2005.

7 GROWTH and DISPARITY: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction, Building Education Success Together (2006), Page 6: “Across the
country, public school district spending on school construction—both building new schools and upgrading existing schools—has grown steadily over the last decade. Of the 17,468 school districts in the United States, nearly three-quarters had school construction projects during the years from 1995 to 2004. Not since the post-World War II baby boom has the nation seen such investment in public K-12 school buildings. According to the U.S. Census of Governments, school districts reported spending $504 billion (in 2005 construction dollars) in capital expenditures from 1995 to 2004.” Page 8: “Spending on school construction nearly doubled from 1995 through 2004. School districts spent more than $20 billion dollars in 1995 on construction. By 2002, school districts were spending record-breaking totals—more than $37 billion annually on hard construction expenses alone.”

8 State Policies for School Construction and Renovation: Seen Through a Preservation Lens, National Trust for Historic Preservation, May 2003

9 Constance Beaumont, State Policies and School Facilities: How States Can Support or Undermine Neighborhood Schools and Community Preservation,National Trust for Historic Preservation, May 2003,


Publication Date: Winter 2009


Author(s):Renee Kuhlman

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