Most school districts in the country are dealing with the same financial issues. The places where there is typically some discretionary cost control in a private market setting (salaries and benefits) are places in the budget that school boards can't tamper much with, except for simply cutting staff. That leaves minor cuts to programs (Advanced Placement courses or extra curricular activities, for example) or dramatic steps to reduce or shift fixed costs, like build a new school.

There are two things about locating schools that I would like people to consider as they send their kids back for another year (or watch other people do so, as is the case with us). Today I am going to talk about replacing the neighborhood school with the school campus and how that is generally bad for everyone. Later this week I will discuss the cost of busing children from sprawling, far-flung neighborhoods to school (campus or neighborhood) and how that is another way we subsidize inefficient development decisions.

Every school district that builds the campus to replace the neighborhood school cites the fixed cost savings of doing so. Generally, the cost to maintain the existing neighborhood school (lead paint is always cited as massively expensive to handle) is much more than the cost of building a new one out of town. Even if you can get the district to acknowledge the larger (and volatile) transportation costs involved with relocation, they will still argue it is cheaper and better.

Let's pretend that is true and that the cost of maintaining historic structures as neighborhood schools is too high and that the cost does not in any way reflect years of neglect. By building the campus, we are also doing the following: 

  • Removing the neighborhood gathering place where the spontaneous soccer game happens on the weekend or the community potluck fundraiser takes place and replacing it in an inaccessible location (except for those that can drive, which does not include most children.) 
  • Requiring our kids to live an adult commuting lifestyle. Instead of the fifteen minute (or less) walk to school, we now bus kids over an hour, each way, each day. In Minnesota winter, that means getting on and off the bus in the dark. 
  • Devaluing our neighborhoods by removing a public building - the neighborhood school - that adds real dollar value to all of the properties in the vicinity. Often these buildings just go into disrepair or are turned into some marginal use that does not fit with the neighborhood, making the loss of the school into a financial disaster for the local neighborhood. 

We have an obesity epidemic amongst our children. Blame it on video games, but that ignores that we force our kids to sit on their butts for hours each day getting to and from school. Blame it on TV, but that ignores that our kids have to wait for their parents to drive them to a kickball game instead of just walking up the street to see who is at the playground.

We have a problem with parents not being involved enough with their school or their children's education. How much more likely is a parent to be involved when they live a block from the school and it is a source of neighborhood pride than when their kid is bused 20 miles to a facility in a field distant from their home?

We have a problem with public safety, and the safety of our kids. I've never heard of a child being run over or abducted by a biker or a pedestrian. We may be able to lock down our remote schools like a penitentiary, but designing our neighborhoods - where our kids still spend most of their time - for safety would go further in protecting them.

I'm a strong fiscal conservative and I am arguing that the value created by the public investment in a school is something that needs to be reflected and partially captured in neighboring properties. This happens when the investment improves the quality of life for those that live in surrounding properties, making their location more desirable and, thus, worth more. This happens with neighborhood schools, but it does not happen with the remote campus.

We've all probably had the debate over whether or not to buy the new car or fix up the old one. Which is really cheaper in the long run? This is often the same debate had when deciding whether to build that new campus, but it is too simplistic. The new car/old car debate would only apply if the cost of the "new car" (remote campus) factored in the decline in neighborhood value and the future anticipated increases in transportation costs due to higher energy prices.

Strong Towns have neighborhood schools.