Sprawl Schools

by Carolyn Chase


f you had $1.51 billion in taxpayer-approved bonding capacity burning a hole in your pocket, you'd want to go, go, go and spend, spend, spend, right?

But recent revelations about the processes being pursued by the San Diego Unified School District with respect to Prop MM moneys give a person pause - and reason to suggest that the District pause as well. After all, the money will still be there. A workshop held in early December by the City of San Diego Planning Commission on the District's first big Environmental Impact Report (EIR) attempting to cite a new elementary school in the Mid-City area provided an amazing number of eye-opening - if not embarrassing moments for the District.

Citizen after citizen complained that notices were not sent to the surrounding community and potentially affected property owners. Consider that each new school may demolish about 155 units of housing and displace as many as 500 low-moderate income residents for each of 14 new schools. Add it up. The school district is evidently planning to displace as many as 3,000 small homes and apartments. The school district is obligated to buy people out, but where are they going to be able to buy back in - in this housing market? Temecula? If they try to keep jobs down here, they will only add to traffic and have to sacrifice their quality of life. To withhold notice from property owners in the proposed sites seems particularly egregious and shortsighted. Where is their commitment to the community of San Diego? Just because they have certain exemptions from zoning or other housing redevelopment requirements that may lower legal requirements to do certain things doesn't mean they aren't morally obligated.

Also at issue is the size and form of the facilities. Most amazingly, while district officials proudly testified about their plans for a 500-student "neighborhood" facility, members of the public testified that the EIR was written for 900 students. When asked, the district representatives claimed ignorance. This means that these folks didn't even read the two-page summary Notice of Preparation for their own project, not to mention the EIR itself. So who ordered the consultants to prepare the EIR for a 900-student facility while having it be sold for 500 students? Others are also pointing out that the scenario in the EIR technically allows the district to legally accommodate 1170 students.

On November 3, 1998, San Diego voters approved Proposition MM, a $1.51 billion general obligation bond, to fund repairs and renovations to existing schools and to construct new schools in what is the second-largest school district in California.

According to their website at www.PropMM.com, "Proposition MM is one of the largest, most complex public works program ever undertaken in San Diego County. With 177 schools, over 15 million square feet of building area, and 141,000 students, San DiegoUnified School District began $140 million worth of Phase One design, construction and site acquisition this past year. To date, 400 construction projects worth $19 million have been completed under Proposition MM.

"Proposition MM established an Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee (ICOC) to oversee the spending of bond proceeds and the construction projects for the life of the program. Chaired by Scott Barnett, Executive Director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, the 11-member ICOC earlier this summer requested that the Board of Education provide the ICOC with an independent construction management consultant to support its oversight duties."

Barnett resigned as Chair of the ICOC on December 8th, citing both personal and professional conflicts, a key one being his "not being able to appropriately represent the interests of the taxpayers." On December 13th, Barnett followed with another letter doing just that, writing "to express my strong opposition to the Superintendent's proposed Proposition MM Implementation Plan. I believe adoption of this plan at this time puts the effective and efficient implementation of Proposition MM in serious jeopardy" . . . "Allowing district staff to lead and develop this new department and set up structures and procedures (even for a few months) is a mistake. While district staff consists of hard working, decent and competent people, in my opinion, the existing staff does not have the expertise and ability to implement the largest and most complex public works project in local government history. Not to say that building and repairing schools is rocket science. But the myriad of issues from timing, staging, legal compliance, neighborhood impacts, spread over hundreds of square miles, makes this extremely challenging. We cannot afford a Belmont!"

Barnett is referring to a multi-million dollar fiasco in Los Angeles where a mismanaged environmental siting process for just one high school has more than doubled project costs.

Part of that flawed approach was in applying outmoded education code requirements, stated in terms of "students-per-acre," that bias the outcome for any site selection towards a larger site. At a time when charter schools are being formed in office parks and shopping malls, it's clearer than ever than education is not essentially about acreage or buildings. While we need new schools, do we need sprawl schools?

Editorials in the Los Angeles Times have pointed out, "The board needs to think about building schools in a new way. Longtime state education codes require large amounts of land to build a high school. In a built-out urban area, that no longer makes sense. If the board would have to spend another $150 million to finish Belmont -- not counting the endless monitoring costs -- why not take that money and build smaller, easier-to-locate campuses? The board needs to ask these questions and a whole lot more." ... "In Minneapolis, a small school built on less than an acre share the top floors of a downtown parking structure..." Closer to home, "In Orange County, the crowded Santa Ana Unified School District is completing a three-story intermediate school built over a parking structure in a shopping a center." and "The classroom crunch will undermine instructional reforms unless the state encourages local districts to build creatively on sites much smaller than the recommended 10 acres for elementary schools to 50 acres for large comprehensive high schools. The state should give as much regulatory relief and monetary help as possible to new ways of building schools."

If public testimony before the Planning Commission is any indication, San Diego Unified is already off to a particularly poor start in applying any creative approaches here.

The "Smaller Sites" alternative in the EIR is given short shrift and all alternatives are judged primarily on a students-per-acre criteria. No consideration was given to multi-story or mixed-use alternatives.

Best design practices are proving at other school sites that both polluted runoff, drainage and urban "heat island" effects can be reduced, and costs can be reduced as well, by running comparisons of mixes of best management practices (BMPs) for sites during the design and environmental evaluation phases.

A non-profit community organization in Los Angeles, TreePeople has helped catalyze a process providing cost/benefit analysis of site designs including schools. Part of this process, dubbed "Cool Schools," has demonstrated that by using watershed design BMPs such as planting trees and reducing asphalt, among other things, both significant cost and environmental savings can be realized. Everyone wins. You have healthier school environments that cost less to sustain and saves taxpayer dollars by reducing the need for other more expensive practices for things like drainage control, water and energy usage.

When you see the new design plans vs. the old sites, it's remarkable. There is no avoiding confronting the reality that we have, in the main, designed too many schools more like prison yards - with asphalt and chain link fences as the dominant features - than healthy environments.

Even though EIRs are supposed to look at alternatives and support better decision-making, this EIR does nothing to help the community or the district pursue healthier and more sustainable schools via better design principles. It provides no analysis whatsoever of better project alternatives for water quality, energy, or smarter - and I might add healthier - site design.

Barnett also cites other management problems from a report commissioned by the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, "The findings of the recent Gafcon report clearly illustrated an organization that has serious problems, and has been unable to effectively monitor and oversee even the relatively small amount of construction ($32 million) to date."

By the way, the property owners finally did receive a notice - from a local attorney who got the mailing list out of the EIR. It should come as a surprise to no one if lawsuits are filed over this. Intervention is needed now. The EIR should be redone after working with the community and the city to satisfactorily deal with design, siting and housing supply and displacement issues. The community understands the need for new schools, but you need to work with people fairly from the outset to soften the blows of evicting someone from their home. I also urge the District to pursue the use and integration of TreePeople's cost/benefit model in all school planning efforts and to seek alternatives for smaller schools.

Schools would seem to me to be one of the most important places to apply smart growth principles! If not in institutions of learning - then where else could we be smart?

But right now, school planning efforts are flunking the smart growth test.