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Hard Lessons, Hard Bill

LaJoy’s success demonstrates that halting school sprawl is difficult

September 9, 2006 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Schools don’t have to cause sprawl.

Three years after a statewide, bipartisan council urged the Michigan Legislature to change how public schools decide where to build their new facilities, a state representative who was once a township official has finally succeeded in transforming a key council recommendation about the matter into law.

Inspired by the August 2003 final report of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, Public Act 276 of 2006, sponsored by Phil LaJoy (R-Canton), fulfils, albeit to a limited extent, the council’s recommendation that the state require schools boards to follow their communities’ master plans, instead of continuing to allow the boards to make siting decisions independent of local planning. As enacted, the measure calls for school boards that are planning to significantly expand existing high schools or their athletic facilities to communicate with local township planning officials.

The August 2003 council recommendations, which also suggested awarding incentives to school boards for revtializing old facilities and building new ones in existing town centers, were subsequently buttressed in a special report published by the Michigan Land Use Institute in February 2004. The report, Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom, found that changes in how the state funds public schools triggered widespread abandonment of established neighborhood schools in favor of building huge, expensive “trophy” schools far from established population centers.

The report said that the policy contributed to sprawling development and forcied local, non-school taxes upward to finance the new road, sewers, water main, and public safety costs such development requires.

As a former township official, Representative LaJoy said he understood how building new schools in greenfields harmed cities and cost taxpayers too much money. The report’s factual case convinced the representative to propose school-siting legislation in March 2004. However it took an additional legislative session and significant downsizing of the bill’s original scope to muster majorities in both the House and Senate this June. Signed by Governor Granholm on July 7, the new law took effect immediately.

“I had a lot of resistance to it,” Mr. LaJoy said recently. “Twenty-eight school superintendents, school boards: I spent a lot of time meeting with people. What happened is that through all the discussion, everybody gave a little, and things happened.”

Now, as evidence mounts that the state’s current school funding and school choice laws are harming many older school systems and communities, proponents of siting schools within established neighborhoods—including state education officials, the Michigan Municipal League, and Michigan Association of School Boards—are contemplating next possible steps.

A Long Journey
As originally introduced in March, 2004, Representative LaJoy’s bill required local zoning authorities to weigh in before any school in any city, village, or township could execute a plan to build a new facility or expand either an existing building or athletic facility by more than 20 percent. Although zoning officials would review and comment on proposed plans, final decisions would have remained with the state superintendent, rather than with the local school board or with local officials, who are excluded from any oversight of public schools.

Even with several amendments limiting the bill’s scope, the final House vote on Mr. LaJoy’s first proposal split the chamber with its 55-48 floor vote. The bill died in the state Senate, failing to even gain a committee hearing.

A newly revised bill, H.B. 5479, re-introduced in December 2005 by Representative LaJoy, limited the review solely to high schools located in townships.

During a House committee hearing three months later, on March 16, just two intermediate school districts—Ottawa and Muskegon—supported the revisions. However, other organizations brought additional support, including the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, Michigan Small and Rural Schools, Michigan Association of Planning, Michigan Association of Home Builders, and the Michigan Townships Association.

Ironically, the State Department of Education, Michigan Association of School Boards, and the Michigan Municipal League, which had supported the original bill, opposed the revised version because it had become so narrow. 

Summer Minnick, director of state affairs for MML, which represents over 500 cities and villages, said her organization began opposing the rewritten bill because “we did not see the reason to discriminate against cities and villages. We believe it’s an issue for all communities.”

State Board of Education Vice President John Austin said that his group eventually supported the narrower version because his colleagues believed that “school siting needs to be done in the context of community and regional planning—with the goal of encouraging schools to be developed and built within existing communities in order to enrich the life and vibrancy of cities and towns.”

The Right Direction
As finally enacted, the measure only applies to expansions of 20 percent or more to existing high schools and their athletic facilities located in townships; while it requires school boards to communicate with local planning officials, it does not grant municipalities any decision-making powers over siting new schools.

“It is not as strong as we wanted,” admitted David Bertram, legislative liaison for the Michigan Township Association, which actively supported both of Mr. LaJoy’s versions of the bill and earlier this year honored him as its Legislator of the Year. “It’s probably a quarter of a loaf. But we believe it’s a start that takes us in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, the Michigan Association of Planners, which also supported both versions of the legislation, maintains that the location of schools speaks directly to the character of a community.

“Most communities desire schools that are integral to the community, connected to neighborhoods, and sustainable,” observed Andrea Brown, MAP’s executive director. “If care is not taken, the result could be massive school buildings, surrounded by a sea of parking, set back hundreds of feet from the street, and located on sites that neither the roads nor water and sewer capacity can service without great expense”—a fair description, many observers say, of many new schools in Michigan.

Ms. Brown added that, while local governments should have control of land use within their borders, “it is critical that local zoning codes and review standards ensure quality school development that is consistent with a community’s vision.”

An Arms Race
The next steps for directing new public school construction back towards established neighborhoods remain unclear. Hard Lessons says the question is crucial: New school construction is dramatically raising property taxes for Michigan homeowners and businesses to pay for both the schools themselves and for the municipal services that the sprawling development they encourage demands.

According to Hard Lessons, Proposal A, passed in 1994, is fueling a building boom because it cut property taxes in half, giving local school officials room to request new taxes to build trophy schools. In the decade since Proposal A took effect, the report found, debt for constructing new public schools ballooned from $4 billion to more than $12 billion, 278 older schools closed, and more than 500 new ones opened. 

The practice hits urban districts hard. Ongoing suburban migration pumps up the tax bases of suburban school districts, which then build trophy schools and use them, in league with the “school choice” policy, to attract many more out-of-district students, and the $7,200 in state funds attached to each youngster. Meanwhile urban districts, already facing declining enrollments due to suburban migration, lose the same amount each time they lose a student.

For example, the $40 million Okemos High School, located east of East Lansing, was for most of its first decade that area’s ultimate example of a high school palace. But then nearby Holt upped the ante in 2003, building the $67 million Holt Senior High School, south of Lansing. That required building an expensive sewer extension to the new school; the extension has helped transform the farm fields it cuts through into new subdivisions.

One thing this palace-building encouraged was declining enrollment in the Lansing School District. In a recent three-year period, it lost a staggering $42 million in state funding as its students enrolled in newer schools, including Okemos and Holt.

Mac McClelland, who worked at the Michigan Land Use Institute, where he led research for Hard Lessons, says the phenomenon will not be confined to inner city schools.

After Okemos used Proposal A to build it’s now-outgunned school, Mr. McClelland said, it “grew into a bedroom community. In Michigan, school construction has become an arms race. At the time that Holt Senior High School opened, it was the largest in terms of square footage in the entire state. It became another reason for people to depart from urban areas and move to the suburbs—in this case, away from Lansing.”

“High schools represent a shocking example of public investment gone awry,” he added. “The schools are so big, the land needs so vast, and facilities so elaborate that 160 acres are not uncommon. It’s hard, if not impossible, to find that much land in a developed community.”

But Mr. McClelland, who lobbied lawmakers about Hard Lessons, does see some progress.

“Representative LaJoy’s bill doesn’t deal with all of the issues,” he agreed. “But it begins a necessary discussion between the relationship of school development and land use. Before now, there was no requirement for school officials to have discussions with local planning officials. That victory will eventually lead to significant impacts.”   

Representative LaJoy agrees. “We needed a start, a beginning,” the representative said.

Concurring but hopeful for more, Mr. Austin said, “I personally support even stronger action and legislation to ensure school siting is considered in light of overall effects on community and region. We may see that in the future as we take up school infrastructure support as ‘undone’ business of Proposal A. This legislation is a start.”  

Charlene Crowell is the State Policy Director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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