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Slowing Edge-ucation

Michigan House considers strengthening local involvement in school construction

May 24, 2004 | By Mac McClelland
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/MLUI/Mac McClelland

If it is approved, the House proposal would encourage school boards and local governments to collaborate so that new schools not only enhance the community of learning but also do not encourage more sprawl.

The state House this week, in the latest in a flurry of legislation intended to slow suburban sprawl and improve the quality of life in Michigan, is expected to take up a measure that for the first time would give local governments the authority to review school construction plans. House Bill 5660, sponsored by Representative Philip J. LaJoy, a Republican from Canton, directs school boards to submit their plans for new buildings and athletic fields to city, township, or county planning commissions for review.

Mr. LaJoy’s proposal, which was unanimously approved on May 12 by the House Land Use and Environment Committee, is intended to give citizens and local elected leaders more involvement in deciding where new schools are built.

If it is approved, House Bill 5660 would encourage school boards and local governments to collaborate so that new schools not only enhance the community of learning but also do not encourage more sprawl. Michigan taxpayers spend around $1 billion each year to renovate and construct schools. But local communities have little to say about where new schools are built. “This bill seeks to address the continuing problem of urban sprawl and unplanned growth,” said Mr. LaJoy. “It would also encourage construction of new schools in areas with existing infrastructure and where development was planned.”

Strong Support For Measure
The school planning bill has attracted broad support — the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Municipal League endorse the bill — and little opposition other than a coalition of the Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County Intermediate school districts.

Although school boards have been reluctant to subject construction plans to local review, they recognize the need to coordinate their decisions with the community. “We need to work better with local governments to ensure that schools fit what communities have planned,” Justin King, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, told a group of leaders last summer at a roundtable discussion convened by the state Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Land Use Institute.

School boards and representatives of local governments, who helped to craft the legislation, also have expressed their support. “We would like to have all schools fall under the jurisdiction of local zoning,” said David Bertram, legislative liaison for the Michigan Townships Association at a recent House Land Use Committee hearing on the bill, “but we support the bill as a step in the right direction.”

Proposal Details
The school construction planning measure, which the House is expected to take up as early as Tuesday, does not give local governments the final authority to determine the location of new schools. If local governments disapprove, school boards can appeal the decision to the state Superintendent of Education, who has 30 days to make a final decision.

Small projects to renovate or expand existing schools are exempt as are schools that erect temporary classrooms as long as the temporary facilities are not used for more than two years. The proposal also exempts charter schools from the site plan review requirement. But an amendment to subject charter schools to local review is expected to be introduced on the House floor Tuesday by Representative Mike Pumford, a Republican from Newaygo.

School boards and local governments have tussled over school construction decisions for decades. A series of lawsuits in the 1970s and 1980s exempted schools from local zoning and the state Superintendent was vested with the “sole and exclusive jurisdiction” over school buildings and site plans. In July 2003, the Michigan Supreme Court cemented that principle in a case that involved Northville High School, Northville Township, and nearby residents.

The disputes have grown more intense as families with school age children move out of cities and older suburbs to seek less expensive housing in newer suburbs and rural areas. The rush of school age children has prompted residents to raise property taxes to build new schools.

A report earlier this year by the Michigan Land Use Institute, Hard Lessons: The Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom, documented how building new schools far from town centers is accelerating sprawl in Michigan. The pattern of ever-outward migration has intensified over the last decade, according to Hard Lessons, as changes in how schools are financed in Michigan encouraged more new schools, many of which are now being built to serve not only their current students but to attract more students.

Mr. LaJoy’s proposal reflects his first hand experience with the frustration local government officials and citizens have experienced in school construction decisions. As a trustee in Oakland County’s fast-growing Canton Township, Mr. LaJoy felt the wrath of his constituents in a dispute over the location and lighting of a football field at Plymouth-Canton High School. The Canton Township Board of Trustees had no authority to broker an agreement between the school board and the residents.

Responding to the State Land Use Council Report
Mr. LaJoy credited the state Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Land Use Institute for spurring his interest in sponsoring the school planning proposal. In 2003, the Chamber and the  Institute collaborated on a research project to examine the relationship between school construction and sprawl. The Chamber and the Institute convened several meetings with stakeholders including school officials, local government leaders, legislators, interest groups, and citizens to discuss recommendations to improve how school boards made construction and location decisions, including requiring school construction and site plans to come under review by local planning agencies.

Many of the recommendations from those meetings were included last August in a report by the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a bipartisan panel of 26 prominent leaders convened by Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm to advise the state on how to rein in sprawl.

The need for the school planning bill is readily apparent, say supporters. In 1994, Michigan enacted Proposal A, which cut property taxes in half and shifted school financing to the state sales tax. Since then spending on school construction has soared to levels that are comparable to what Michigan spends on road construction. Since 1996, Michigan school districts have built at least 500 new schools and closed 278 older ones while the school age population grew by just 4.5 percent.

Meanwhile school districts are neglecting older schools in existing neighborhoods that can be renovated at much lower public expense. In every case that the Institute studied, building a new school cost more than renovating an older one.

Momentum for Smart Growth in Lansing
The school planning bill is part of a growing number of land use measures sponsored by Democrats and Republicans that are intended to put the recommendations of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council into effect. In the final months of 2003 Governor Granholm  signed two executive orders, and 17 bills passed by the Republican-led Legislature that, among other things, empower municipalities to get tough on owners of blighted property, help expedite redevelopment of abandoned brownfield sites, and raise the cap on bond money available for such projects. Other measures signed by the governor encourage regional planning and permit townships to include open space in their mixed-use zoning laws.

Early next month, the Granholm administration is set to announce the winners of $100,000 state grants designed to strengthen the state’s central business districts and neighborhoods. And last week Republicans in the state Senate introduced a package of measures that sponsors said are meant to direct more public and private investments to cities and other areas that already are developed.



House Approves School Construction Planning Proposal; Exempts Charter Schools
LANSING, May 25, 2004 -- The state House today narrowly approved HB 5660 on a 55 – 48 vote. The bill, as passed by the House, exempts charter schools from the site plan submittal requirement. Opponents to the bill were frustrated by efforts from charter school advocates, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, to kill the amendment from Republican representative Mike Pumford that would include all schools. The vote on the amendment was held open for about 30 minutes while the Chamber and charter school advocates worked to ensure the amendment would not garner the votes necessary. Eleven Republicans broke rank and joined all 48 Democrats present to approve the amendment, but fell one vote short. All the remaining 47 Republicans voted in opposition to the amendment.

Mac McClelland, co-author of Hard Lessons, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Smart Growth policy specialist. Reach him at mac@mlui.org.

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