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Outward Bound

Proposal A, poor zoning help push schools out of town

March 12, 2004 | By Mac McClelland
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe

Changes in how Michigan finances its public schools and a lack of school-friendly neighborhood zoning ordinances are pushing new construction to remote sites like this one, far from downtown Charlevoix.

Eventually, every community must deal with worn-out school buildings — always a difficult decision because it involves educational goals, personal preferences, public policy, and cultural proclivities. Yet the decision is often predictable: Americans generally prefer new over old, large over small, and lavish over simple.

It turns out that state school construction policy in Michigan, what there is of it, is heavily tilted to satisfying those preferences, thanks to several unintended consequences of Proposal A, as well as neighborhood zoning laws and the lack of state guidance for local school boards making decisions on facility construction, rehabilitation, and location.

Those are some of the major findings in a report just published by the Michigan Land Use Institute. The report, Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom, based on a cooperative effort with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, looked into the question of how decisions about where to build public schools are made, and how those decisions affect land use patterns in Michigan.

The report determined that Michigan is building new school facilities at a record pace, even as the student population grows relatively slowly, and that this building boom is driving up property taxes for suburban homeowners and businesses while eroding the tax bases of many older, established communities. Hard Lessons determined that renovating buildings in established community centers is almost always cheaper than building a new facility on a greenfield site, but school boards rarely understand this because officials frequently depend on “free” feasibility studies by firms that specialize in constructing new buildings, not refurbishing old ones.

The report, which is available in PDF and text-only formats, recommends a series of policy changes and incentives that the state superintendent of public instruction and state Legislature can act on. The recommendations are meant to encourage better decision-making about school renovation, construction, and location.

Last Tuesday, two people featured in Hard Lessons —Lynn Glahn, Harbor Springs School Board president, and Norm Hamann, of Diekema-Hamann Architects, Inc. — joined with State Historic Preservation Officer Brian Conway and report co-author Mac McClelland to meet with the Michigan State Board of Education. State Superintendent Tom Watkins told the four that he and the board intended to pursue enactment of Hard Lessons’ recommendations.

A Local Story
When it comes to school construction Michigan is either a model of local control, in which individual taxpayers foot the bill and join with school boards to plan for the future, or a state that lacks directions and tends toward wasteful actions. Why? Unlike most states, Michigan exerts remarkably little oversight of school construction. The state also provides communities with easy access to huge amount of capital that school boards are clearly prepared to borrow for construction, all of which is financed through local property taxes. Michigan also provides local school boards with the authority to decide how much to spend on schools and where to build them.

On one hand, communities have extraordinary opportunities to make informed decisions. In Escanaba, Jackson, and elsewhere, school boards embraced such flexibility, decided against conventional wisdom, renovated their existing schools, and saved money.

But such localized control also permits communities to depend on outside experts and local leaders who may have narrower agendas or incomplete information. For example, “free” consultations frequently convince school officials that building new is cheaper than renovating, even though research indicates that the opposite is almost always true. Renovation typically costs between $60 and $90 per square foot, new construction about $120 to $160 per square foot.

The Saga of Proposal A
Yet it is Proposal A that most underlies Michigan’s school construction boom. Although Proposal A was enacted with the best of intentions — narrowing the funding gap between wealthy and poor districts and reducing tax costs for businesses and homeowners — the unexpected consequences have been profound for every school district and hundreds of communities in Michigan.

Passed in 1994, Proposal A cut property taxes by 35 to 50 percent, raised the state sales tax from 4 to 6 percent, and made the sales tax the primary revenue source for public school operations. It also significantly reduced the per-pupil operating expenditure imbalance between wealthy and poor school districts because, before 1994, wealthy districts thrived on high property values, while poor one starved on low property values. Today Proposal A redistributes money to schools at a base level of $6,700 per pupil.

But because the proposal also lowered property taxes by an average of 27 mills, it allowed school boards to request small millage increases — just five or six mills — for either renovating old or building new school facilities. That is why the following year requests for construction bonds doubled and, in the decade since then, bonded debt for construction loans tripled from $4 billion to $12 billion, which is a 14 percent annual increase in a state with just a 4.5 percent annual increase in student population.

And because Proposal A ties a school’s student population directly to how much money it receives from the state, it has also sharply increased overt competition for students among schools. Since each student is worth at least $6,700 in state funds, losing just three kids from one classroom means a loss of $20,100 in operating revenue for that classroom, whose operational costs remain unchanged.

Unbridled Competition
This competition often leads districts to build the most spectacular facilities they can afford. The state’s newest and largest example is Holt High School; built in an Ingham County farm field, it cost $67 million and has roughly twice the square footage of a Wal-Mart Super Center.

Parents and school officials often claim that newer, bigger schools mean better students. There is some preliminary research showing a correlation between classroom environment and performance — but not the age or size of the building.  In fact the Standard and Poor’s School Evaluation Service has found that, in some districts, the oldest schools house the highest performance. And numerous studies demonstrate that lower student-teacher ratios, smaller schools, higher socio-economic status, and more parental involvement are the real keys to academic performance.

But building new and big at the edge does have one undeniable correlation: The transformation of rural landscapes into suburbs. Families are moving from older neighborhoods in Lansing and East Lansing to new subdivisions near Holt High. Development around that school is increasing traffic congestion, calls for expensive roads, and pollution from storm water running off the all of the new buildings and parking lots.

Meanwhile poor urban districts remain at a construction disadvantage because they have far poorer per-student tax bases than their suburban neighbors. To raise the same amount of money per student as a well-off district, a distressed, inner-city district must approve millage proposals for six or seven, not just two or three, mills. This has proven to be a tough sell: Since 1996 construction bonds have failed in Flint, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, and Pontiac.

Outside the Zone
Further accelerating the construction boom at suburbia’s edges is the lack of local governmental authority in school board planning. Only the state superintendent of public instruction has jurisdiction over site plans and buildings, and that is traditionally extended directly to school boards. A legal challenge of this law went to the Michigan Supreme Court, which in July confirmed that state law indeed does  “immunize school districts from local ordinances as they affect the content of a school site plan.”

The consequences are sometimes severe. Clarkston, in Oakland County, built a new school on such a poor dirt road that its buses cannot reach it during heavy rains and ice storms. Charlevoix built a new high school that disrupts the township’s master plan.

But even if schools complied with master plans, they would still have problems with Michigan’s zoning ordinances, which encourage sprawling development. Large building setbacks, requirements for very big parking lots, severe limitations on building heights, and the mandated separation of commercial from residential development make fitting a school into an existing neighborhood very difficult. It’s one more reason school districts decide to build at the edge of town, and why towns and villages need to adopt “smart codes” that are much friendlier to building or expanding neighborhood schools.

Mac McClelland, director of  the Institute’s Neighborhood Schools Program, can be reached at mac@mlui.org. Keith Schneider, the Institute’s deputy director, can be reached at keith@mlui.org. Text-only, PDF, and hard-copy versions of Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom are available elsewhere on our Web site.

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