Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Conclusions and Recommendations

Conclusions and Recommendations

Ten steps to better schools and healthier communities

February 22, 2004 | By Mac McClelland
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

After school one recent afternoon, a group of students waited by the main entrance of the $67 million, 352,000-square-foot Holt High School, one of Michigan’s newest and largest public schools. Inside, students swam in the eight-lane pool. The boys basketball team practiced in a sunken gymnasium that has room for thousands of fans and a running track. The cheerleaders worked out in a weight room that rivaled a private health club’s. Outside, a football stadium, practice fields, tennis courts, and parking lots cover what was once farmland and form a perfect circle around the school.

When asked whether they liked the new school, which replaced a 1970s-vintage facility that was much closer to Holt’s downtown, the kids smiled and said they liked the bright hallways, modern wired classrooms, and food court-style cafeteria. “It’s a model school and I’m a model student,” one of them said.

But just what sort of model does the new high school represent?

Holt’s And The State’s Dilemma 
Not long ago Holt was a sleepy farming community. But no more: Young families moved out of nearby Lansing and East Lansing to settle in the more rural, less expensive region and pushed Delhi Township’s population up 18 percent between 1990 and 2000, to 22,600 people. It has grown nine times faster than the rest of Ingham County. A remarkable one third of its residents are under 19.

Before 2000, Holt had a high school, a school for freshman, a middle school, and six elementary schools that served 5,311 youngsters, a number that grew by 300 students annually. That year, school district officials and the community debated building a new high school. In a hairbreadth election decided by seven votes, out of 4,893 votes cast, residents approved a $73 million school bond millage to build the new high school and renovate the middle school.

The high school is single-handedly transforming Holt’s landscape. To help Holt High and encourage new development around it, Delhi Township spent $725,000 to extend a sewer line there and beyond, to the township line. Subdivisions are springing up in fields faster than the corn that used to grow on them.

The new high school was designed to ease classroom overcrowding by serving 1,500 students. But so many families are attracted to the school that its enrollment will likely exceed capacity within two years.

Holt now faces a choice that is becoming all too common in Michigan’s rapidly developing rural communities. At a cost of many millions of dollars, it can build still more classrooms that nevertheless may soon become empty as new, young families skip over Holt and move to the next ring of development outside Lansing. Or Holt could choose not to build and see families flee as overcrowding ruins its reputation.

Holt’s dilemma is a product of the constantly shifting expectation of Michigan’s citizens and the state’s hands-off school financing and land use policies.

Lessons Learned
In Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom, the Michigan Land Use Institute has documented how new school construction is affecting the state’s communities, landscape, and development patterns.

We found that the decisions districts make weave almost indelible threads into Michigan’s economic and cultural fabric and help determine where families and businesses locate and whether those communities prosper or wither.

But even as Michigan’s billion-dollar-per-year school construction boom roughly matches what the state spends on road construction each year, it leaves behind urban, older suburban, and rural school districts with stable or declining enrollments. Although those communities often have out-of-date schools, they almost as often do not have citizens’ support for modernizing them or build new ones.

And even as districts spent billions on hundreds of new schools in Michigan since 1995, accelerating a rush to settle rural regions, hundreds of other schools closed. This report concludes that Michigan taxpayers and businesses are spending tens of millions of dollars on new schools in ways that weaken many communities  while stimulating inefficient development on farmland and open space.

There are three primary reasons for Michigan’s school construction boom:

  • Families frequently base their decisions on where to live on public school quality; Michigan’s modern highways significantly expand their choices.
  • State law gives school boards free rein in deciding where new  schools are built.
  • State school finance laws tilt school boards toward building bigger, surprisingly lavish public schools at the edge of town.
The Michigan Land Use Institute has developed a series of recommendations that will save homeowners and businesses significant amounts of money, enhance the integrity of existing neighborhoods, and improve Michigan’s economic competitiveness and quality of life by encouraging the renovation of older buildings and the construction of new ones closer to town. These policies will lead to improved buildings and school programs.

We found convincing evidence of the effectiveness of these recommendations in
districts throughout Michigan where school boards pursued independent information about their facilities’ needs and modernized existing neighborhood schools instead of constructing new buildings outside of town. In every case this improved students’ education, pleased parents, reduced costs for businesses and homeowners, and strengthened neighborhoods and communities.

Currently the State Superintendent of Public Instruction has exclusive jurisdiction over all aspects of school renovation, construction, and site design. But the State Legislature can also play a key role in school construction. We urge the state superintendent and the Legislature to use their authority to implement the following policies.


1. Help school districts develop processes that invite richer and broader discussion with all segments of the community about how best to provide better facilities, preferably in town.
 2. Establish renovating existing schools as the top priority; constructing new schools in existing neighborhoods the next priority; and constructing new schools in farm fields the last resort. Schools must conserve land and reduce costs through more efficient site design and sharing playing fields, athletic stadiums, and recreational facilities among different schools and the community.
 3. Ensure that school districts provide safe routes to school so that kids can walk or bike to their classes and to after school activities.
 4. Encourage districts to improve their system of assessing the condition and capacity of all school facilities by paying for independent assessments that provide truly accurate information about the costs of both renovation and new construction. These assessments must include a comprehensive comparison of the costs of building a new school versus renovating an existing one, including all short- and long-range land, infrastructure, staffing, and transportation expenses.
5. Require that whenever new construction is warranted, districts must build new schools where paved roads and stormwater, sewer, and water service are either available or already planned for and financed.
6. Amend the Michigan School Bond Loan Program to strongly encourage schools to stay in existing neighborhoods.
7. Require school boards to submit much more rigorous analysis and technical justification for closing existing schools to the Michigan School Bond Loan Program in order to gain loans to build new ones. Currently, the program routinely approves applications that have scant justification for closing existing schools.
8. Provide additional incentives, such as tax-increment financing tools, to upgrade school buildings in urban school districts to level the playing field with their suburban neighbors.


9. Require districts to submit site plans to local, county, and regional planning commissions for review and comment to assure that they are consistent with local master plans.
10. Persuade districts to submit long-term construction and improvement plans to local governments for review and comment. School boards and local government should ensure that such plans are incorporated into community master plans.
Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org