An Urban Designer's Commentary on Our Public Educational System and Concurrency

By: G. Brian Wheeler, RLA, CNU, AICP

Serious problems within our public education system are being created by the unsustainable mixture of Florida’s low tax base coupled with the high growth rate throughout the State. More locally-based, creative solutions to our educational system’s costs are needed as we continue to underfund our community’s educational system while increasing our level of new suburban homes. In the future, legislation may be introduced allowing for the local option of a real estate transfer fee to be available for educational facilities on a localized basis. The funding crisis for educational facilities may lead to the movement of the current $25,000 homestead exemption to the second $25,000 of value in order to allow the many thousands of mobile home owners, many of whose children currently attend public schools, to contribute to the tax base. However, we need to identify other mechanisms to allow our educational system to “catch up” and meet new concurrency standards so we don’t penalize existing and future developments for our past financial short falls.

G. Brian Wheeler is a Principal and Executive Vice President with Genesis (GGI, LLC) in Jacksonville, Florida. This office of Genesis specializes in Landscape Architecture, Community Planning, Urban Design and Transportation Planning.

Florida is not just a retirement destination. Our school-age population is growing at a much faster rate than the historical growth rate of our overall population. Many of our county school systems are trying to maintain their existing level of service while increasing their current pace of construction to keep up with the growing demand for public educational facilities. For example, Broward County has fallen behind with its ability to construct new facilities and does not meet many of the standards that we now set for public school facilities. This county recently calculated the investment necessary to bring its current facilities up to current codes at a staggering $2.5 billion. Many school systems are looking to split-shift scheduling and year-round school schedules as a response to overcrowded and under-utilized school facilities. However, these administrative solutions are tough on the people who run our educational system, and particularly problematic with parents and families who may have children on different school schedules. School Boards, in general, have struggled with planning for Florida’s future; there has been little long-term thinking and a great deal of shortsighted solutions painstakingly delivered within a politically charged system.

The solutions to many of our school system’s developmental problems need to be found and implemented over the next two years due to recently passed growth management laws that affect Comprehensive Plans. Many answers lie in the area of site planning and design of our facilities within a legally sustainable concurrency system addressing the planning, design, location, and construction of educational facilities. These regulations will be imposed statewide and on a local level for those school districts not meeting State standards for facilities. For too long our school boards have been allowed to exist in a parallel universe, administratively moving from crisis to crisis while selecting new school sites based upon the availability and affordability of land. Historically, this problem has been coupled with a poor attempt to monitor development cycles and growth corridors within suburban development patterns. Many public regulators envision a planning system for school sites that is integrated with our current comprehensive planning requirements. They believe suburban development should be tied to the availability of school facilities. As land planning consultants working in the private development industry, we also have a strong need to know where future school sites will be located and when these schools will be constructed. In the future, the quality and capacity of our educational facilities may be reviewed with each land use amendment, property rezoning, development order, and issuance for building permit.

For over 300 years, our Forefathers were able to provide the facilities needed to educate the population. his occurred in spite of periods of extreme economic growth and recession. Why then are we having school facility problems here in the 21st Century?

There are numerous reasons, including the building codes and standards administered by the Department of Education. These school construction codes add a considerable cost to facility construction beyond the Florida Standard Building Code, which governs all other non-school buildings constructed statewide.

Instead of larger, more expensive schools, our community needs to construct an increasing number of smaller schools, complete with electronic resource rooms and classrooms tied electronically to centralized educational facilities. The school board should acquire desirable sites through the powers of eminent domain just as transportation agencies currently acquire land. These transportation acquisitions routinely occur while we accept that our children are housed in portable buildings and our core educational facilities are converted to classrooms due to lack of space. As a concerned community, we see more lawsuits being filed by coalitions of homeowners’ associations and organizations like the N.A.A.C.P when our school boards arbitrarily locate new school sites outside of the Urban Service Zones already established as part of the Comprehensive Plan. School boards cannot be expected to create or force social-economic integration, while our Comprehensive Plan and zoning system segregate otherwise. The solution to our existing concurrency dilemma is tied to many other urban planning issues and requires intergovernmental coordination to enact realistic solutions.

Indeed, school sites should be located so that the school itself can become part of the center of community life, allowing the concept of community participation to become an element of the curriculum. Urban fringe locations for new schools would stimulate surrounding higher-density development, in-fill reinvestment, and reconstruction in the areas surrounding the school. This pattern of new schools attracting new residential investment commonly occurs in more suburban locations.

Well planned school sites, master planned with related community elements, can help create “community centers” that are viable, identifiable, and designed to respond to the uniqueness of the various portions of our communities. Renovating older schools in inner-city locations frequently costs more than building new schools in suburban locations. However, reinvestment and redevelopment is fundamental to the sustainability of our older neighborhoods. A separate school building code for aging schools may be necessary in order to ensure reinvestment in inner-city locations. Building new schools on old school sites may be required for some areas, along with assimilating additional land area to facilitate more modern development programs.

Planners and Urban Designers are beginning to see many counties look more strategically at the locations of their future schools. Dade County, for example, has established a line one mile inside the County’s current Urban Service boundary beyond which no further schools will be constructed.

The State Department of Education and our school boards should allow for the creation of Primary Learning Centers (PLC’s) providing for grades K through 2 and constructed on as little as 1 ½ to 2 acres. These facilities can be constructed on land provided by developers who could easily donate land and contribute to facilities in exchange for the assurance that public education facilities will be constructed. PLC’s can be located within the boundaries of planned communities or on sites purchased in proximity to new developments as a means of the developer being granted approval from educational concurrency or impact fee requirements. PLC facilities typically would have no cafeteria or gymnasium meals and would be served via private catering companies or from area full-service educational facilities. The smaller PLC’s would not have libraries, but rather small, computerized resource rooms tied to a central data bank and supplemented with internet/DVD reference reading materials. The construction of many local neighborhood PLC’s would remove the existing K-2 school population from our existing overcrowded elementary schools while providing a more cost effective and fine-tuned approach to local school capacity problems. Sixth-grade students could then occupy elementary school space vacated by PLC’s and avoid many of the age, maturity and influence issues generated while mixing with Junior High students.

Future elementary, middle and high schools should be constructed with independent modules for their core facilities, thereby allowing private and public groups dual-usage, management and maintenance of these facilities during off-school hours. For example, innovative school districts around the country, in order to minimize construction and operation costs, have allowed private partnerships that have resulted in school cafeterias being designed to function as dinner theaters during the evening hours and operated by private enterprise. Making school gymnasiums and recreational facilities accessible to private and public organizations will help underwrite their construction, management, and maintenance costs. Urban designers can envision, in the near future, our school sites being jointly purchased and planned with parks and recreation program elements, for the provision of civic functions (i.e. police substations, post offices, community centers), and other community based elements as part of joint acquisition and development programs. These jointly-programmed and jointly-funded education facilities could serve as great catalysts for urban renewal and as community investments in our older suburban neighborhoods and allow our pubic schools to have a greater civic purpose.

We currently have 462 Comprehensive Plans covering all of Florida. Not one of these Comprehensive Plans effectively deals with the issues of public educational facilities. Our school boards’ planning practices have not been consistent with our official Comprehensive Planning practices, and transportation improvement planning. By December of 2008 we will see Public Schools Facilities Elements in our Comprehensive Plans due to new growth management laws. Current social and economic segregation, sometimes evident in our suburban development patterns, has been injected into our school system as well. The health of any community is undeniably related to the health of its educational system. With the decline of our educational facilities and our limited ability to construct new ones, we will certainly see a decline in our quality of life. School boards have isolated themselves from realistic urban design initiatives and community planning processes with disastrous results for our community and our school children and this should be considered as school concurrency is being prepared. Our home building industry seeks flexibility along with certainty with regard to the construction of adequate educational facilities. However, this flexibility and certainty is difficult to provide within the current process utilized by school boards in the design and location of new school facilities. Just finding a concurrency exaction formula won’t produce real solutions, only schools that are paid for on paper.

Within our overall growth management problem, we find that schools are a universal problem. When looking outside of Florida at some of the most managed and regulated communities in this country, we find them to be very successful at attracting new high-quality businesses because of their quality of life and quality educational systems. Areas of our community that are falling behind economically should be redeveloped through grass-roots community participation and reinvestment, including quality educational facilities coordinated with other community elements, investment tax credits, and real estate tax breaks.

Florida cannot afford to grow the way it has in the past, ignoring the linkage of growth to educational facilities and the programs through which our children are educated. As school concurrency is developed across the state, we need to keep an open mind on the solutions that lie before us. Keeping our most urban areas from becoming employment centric will require the urban infusion of residential development patterns covering the same market range and social-economic strata found in a cross section of our suburbs. New residential growth downtown should introduce new funds and facilities to older schools downtown, and within the first tier suburbs and traditional neighborhoods. Strategically located educational facilities, integrated with basic community and civic elements, can provide a catalyst for this residential reinvestment to occur. All eleven campuses within Florida’s university system are required to have Campus Development Agreements, reviewed for concurrency, just like other development projects. Meanwhile, thousands of existing and future schools have been ignored under our Growth Management and Concurrency Regulations, local Comprehensive Plans, and our Development/Builder Community until a crisis is now upon us. What kind of Florida are we building? What will we pass along to our children to live with and pay for? A sustainable quality of life is a goal shared by many. It is high time we demand a more comprehensive solution, one that requires public participation and partnerships, to the Growth Management problems within our public educational system throughout Florida.

For more information on this topic contact G. Brian Wheeler at (904) 730-9360 or bwheeler@genesisgroup.com.