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Schools at the heart of communities: Boards and planning

How can school boards create schools that are more community-centered -- more accessible to students by foot or bike?

What lessons have veterans of successful school planning-initiatives learned?

Here are nine principles boards should consider in the process of planning a new school or an older school’s renovation:

  1. Bring all stakeholders to the planning table. Invite parents, neighborhood leaders, and city officials -- including representatives from planning, parks, and transportation departments -- onto the advisory committee that plans the school. Too often, school facility and community planning take place in different silos. Integrate these planning activities.
  2. Get a good architect. Look carefully at projects completed by architects under consideration. Go with the more creative ones. If you’re debating whether to renovate or build new, find an architect with experience in the rehabilitation of older buildings, especially if renovating a historic school. It’s not uncommon for inexperienced architects to overestimate costs or to exaggerate the challenges of rehabilitation.
  3. Give planning committees adequate time. Once you’ve appointed a school planning committee, give it the time needed to research creative school design, parking and siting concepts. Avoid rushing ahead with a cookie-cutter approach.
  4. Question “rules” that don’t make sense. When you hear there’s a requirement that would harm your community’s vision, question it. Go to a primary source and find out whether it exists. If it does, seek an exception. Rules may just be policies or standard practices that can be more flexible than you think.
  5. Give students transportation options. Push for safe pedestrian and bike routes to school. Provide plenty of bike racks at the school. Above all, locate schools within walking or biking distance of neighborhoods they’re to serve.
  6. Push for good design. Quality design matters. A beautiful school generates neighborhood pride and loyalty. That can boost community engagement, resulting in more volunteers who can then be relied on to help raise money for new educational programs.
  7. Question arbitrary school-acreage standards. Assertions that 10, 20 and 30 acres -- plus an acre for every 100 students -- are required for elementary, middle and high schools, respectively, are common. The State of Oregon imposes no such requirements, and even the Council for Educational Facility Planners International, which had recommended them, has dropped these guidelines.
  8. Tap available information and funding sources. The Oregon Transportation and Growth Management Program maintains a “Walkable Schools” Web page and plans a round of grants in 2007 for local transportation and land-use planning projects. These grants can support safe-routes-to-school initiatives.
  9. Build -- or maintain and rehabilitate -- community-centered schools. Schools that are part of the neighborhoods they serve provide the foundation for a good education and engender community support for school programs and budgets. Examine school design, parking and siting concepts that support schools that are the centers of their communities.

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