Schools and Land Use – A History in DocumentsNovember 1, 2009
We have a bit of a paradox – schools are a key piece of urban infrastructure. They are tremendous generators of social capital, often serving as the heart of a neighborhood. And they have significant impacts on transportation, generating hundreds (in the case of some high schools, probably thousands) of trips per day. I think everyone who listens to traffic reports on the radio knows that when school is out, our streets and freeways are less congested.
The paradox is that the government entity tasked with delivering urban services, including local transportation – City Government – has relatively little say over school planning.
Since at the Planning Commission meeting coming up on November 10th, we’re going to take another crack at discussing schools zoning issues, and we hope to make a recommendation to City Council on 3 out of the 4 issues in front of us (the 4th issue needing more work is the use of athletic fields at schools for non-school activities), I thought it would be useful to prompt a little discussion about this issue. But really I hope this discussion will help inform some of our work on the Portland Plan, which I suspect is the best vehicle to address the relationship between the City of Portland and the school districts that are partially or completely within the boundaries of the City. And I’m going to use several documents, historical and contemporary, to help outline the basis for that discussion.
First of all, if anyone has any doubts that the physical arrangement of classrooms in the city can have impact on educational outcomes, you only need to read Beth Slovic’s recent, excellent “Left Out” cover story in Willamette Week to understand that the impact can be huge.
Let’s go back in history to look at how we got many of the school buildings we have today. A report (part 1 and part 2 – both PDF files – thanks to Beth Slovic for pointing me to this report) from 1957 prepared by the Planning Commission for Portland Public Schools looks at post-war birth rates and predicts the rise (and projects the later decline) in school-age population and suggests areas in which the school district should acquire land for schools. The contrast is fascinating – in times of growth, the school district looks to the City for planning assistance, but I’m not aware whether the school district has ever had a conversation with Planning Commission about how to plan what schools to close (someone please correct me if such conversations have occurred).
By 1979, things were different and the school-age demographic was already in decline and the Goldschmidt adminstration adopted a schools policy (PDF file) for the City that includes criteria for closing schools – but as far as I can tell, this policy was entirely aspirational, it included no agreement with PPS for a City role in making these decisions. The policy also includes many aspirations for how the City and School District (and County) could cooperate on a number of fronts. I suspect many of us would agree that the goals of this policy are still relevant today. Of course the landscape in which these issues exist has changed a lot in the 30 years since. A partial list would include:
- In 1983 Resolution A established distinct roles for the City and County around urban services (City) and social services (County) putting the delivery of social services through schools in a different context (the Sun Schools program attempted to re-unify this to a degree, but has suffered from cutbacks in a difficult funding environment).
- 1990, voters adopted Measure 5 that had the dual impact of largely decoupling schools funding from property taxes while capping property taxes overall. This has led to funding constraints for schools and both the City and County.
- Since that time dramatically fewer children walk or bike to school. Current efforts at “Safe Routes to School” programs are working to reverse this.
- And of course the demographic trends in school enrollment have come to pass.
Finally, many of those schools built post-war now have historical significance and PPS has released an Historic Building Assessment.
So where does that leave us? On the 10th, we’ll talk about the zoning code provisions for schools. But the bigger strategic conversation will happen inside the Portland Plan. What kind of partnership do we want to build between the City and its school districts (not just PPS!) as we develop our strategic plan for the next 30 years?