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|Tuesday, April 01, 2008|
Faced with aging buildings and growing needs, schools struggle to find suitable new locations, and discover the necessity of partnerships with business and the community.
By J. David Santen Jr.
One view of Portland’s Lincoln High School can be found in a recent seven-page assessment of its 1950s-era facilities.
The consultant’s report ticks off an estimated $23.5 million in needed repairs and upgrades — a fraction of the more than $1 billion in costs districtwide — that include replacing the athletic field bleachers (closed midway through last fall’s football season) and the school’s roof, along with fixing significant plumbing and electrical problems and accessibility issues. Not to mention the “modular classrooms” eyesore necessary to accommodate the school’s 1,400-plus students.
As demand for land intensifies, with supply constrained by state land-use laws and urban growth boundaries, school districts find themselves even more limited in where they can place new schools. Most districts build where everyone else is building: in town and in the ’burbs. Traditional standards for schools call for flat parcels of 10 acres for new elementary sites, 20 acres for middle schools and 30 acres for high schools — plus an additional acre per 100 students. In growing urban areas, those large sites can be few and far between.
So schools have become motivated to reconsider what they already own: building a new middle school on an “oversized” elementary school site, for example, or replacing smaller schools with larger (and taller) ones at the same location. The land that school districts are purchasing today may still be flat, but more than likely the parcels are smaller and awkward configurations, acquired and developed in conjunction with multiple partners, such as parks and cities, or condemned from private owners. Or it’s property that the district has managed to stockpile through long-range planning. However they come about it, property is at a premium.
A separate but equal challenge is explaining to neighbors why the district might close older schools and sell land it already owns. Even in the face of declining enrollments, it’s an easier decision financially than socially and emotionally. Schools are de facto recreation centers and parks, meeting places and historic sites. Their zoning is often conditionally approved for school-use only in otherwise residential areas, and rezoning for a new development can be fraught with community input and politics.
To top it off, the school boards and superintendents facing these decisions to buy and sell land, to build or shutter schools, rarely come from a real estate background — particularly the superintendents. So schools, driven by the challenge of managing real estate, have developed new partnerships with cities, counties, parks and libraries, developers and community organizations.
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As a local business owner, I believe it’s important to build our economy on a platform of conservation values.
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